What is Project Based Learning?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional methodology encouraging students to learn by applying knowledge and skills through an engaging experience. PBL presents opportunities for deeper learning in context and for the development of important skills tied to college and career readiness.


Characteristics of Project-Based Learning

Here are three characteristics of meaningful project-based learning activities that lead to deeper student understanding:


1. Interdisciplinary

Project-based curriculum is designed to engage students using real-world problems. This is an interdisciplinary approach because real-world challenges are rarely solved using information or skills from a single subject area. Projects require students to engage in inquiry, solution building, and product construction to help address the issue or challenge presented. As students do the work, they often use content knowledge and skills from multiple academic domains to successfully complete the project.


2. Rigorous

Project-based education requires the application of knowledge and skills, not just recall or recognition. Unlike rote learning to assess a single fact, PBL assesses how students apply a variety of academic content in new contexts. As students engage in a project, they begin by asking a question. Inquiry leads the student to think critically as they are using their academic knowledge in real-world applications. The inquiry process leads to the development of solutions to address the identified problem. They show their knowledge in action through the creation of products designed to communicate solutions to an audience.


3. Student-Centered

In PBL, the role of the teacher shifts from content-deliverer to facilitator/project manager. Students work more independently through the PBL process, with the teacher providing support only when needed. Students are encouraged to make their own decisions about how best to do their work and demonstrate their understanding. The PBL process fosters student independence, ownership of his/her work, and the development of 21st-century/workplace skills.


Examples of Project-Based Learning in Education

Research on PBL supports an increase in student engagement, achievement, and encourages the development of 21st-century skills students need to succeed in their future careers. Here are 4 reasons to adopt a project-based learning model: 


1. PBL is a multidisciplinary pedagogical approach providing meaningful learning opportunities.

While project-based learning can certainly be content-specific, it provides a vehicle for integrating multiple subjects into one cumulative project. PBL encourages students to make meaningful connections across content areas, rather than thinking about each subject area in isolation.

For example, four teachers from four different classrooms at Huntington Middle School (PA) used their individual strengths in a rotational, project-based model to teach middle school students how to apply STEM to real-world situations. The team included a technology teacher, a library media specialist, a math teacher, and a science teacher who split the students into four classes and rotated them every three days. During the nine-week project, students were tasked to use STEM and ELA skills to create their own artificial islands. They used knowledge from all four teachers to finish the multifaceted, cross-curricular project and presented it to their classmates. Hear the benefits of this model in a free webinar here.


2. PBL helps build 21st-century skills students need to succeed.

As educators, it is essential to prepare our students to meet the demands of today’s changing global society. With increased engagement, PBL encourages a deeper understanding of the content which develops critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, also known as the Four Cs of 21st-century learning. These skills are required for college, work, and life beyond school.

Dr. David Reese is a strong supporter of PBL in education, “When working with educators, I often find educators see the final product of the project as the learning. This may be partially correct, but my belief is that process is how we provide students with opportunities to reach high levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and utilize important 21st-century skills.” Opportunity-based projects go beyond the content and truly prepare students for the modern workforce.


3. PBL provides opportunities to engage students in real-world learning.

PBL is arguably the greatest opportunity to engage students in authentic projects or performance tasks tied to real-world careers and experiences. Bob Johnson, a 9th-12th grade forensics, environmental science, earth science, and physical science teacher in Stamford, CT asked his students to be dietitians, to create individualized health plans for a colony of 20 adults. They researched metabolic rates, estimated calorie consumption, and the food pyramid to create a supply list and a plan to feed everyone. (View the performance task here).

At Diamond Springs Elementary School in Virginia Beach, VA, 1st-grade teacher Amber  Bush used the Reporter performance task to help students discover what growing up was like for adults in their life. Fourth graders in Paul Karlovic's classroom studied earthquakes through the lens of an emergency services coordinator. They had to determine how to make the city safer during an earthquake by recommending different materials and presenting new ideas. These examples, plus many more, show how real-world tasks give students a deeper understanding of concepts through relevant and authentic learning experiences.


4. PBL can be implemented in person or in remote learning environments.

Project-based education follows a flexible, differentiated model where students have the freedom to work independently or collaborate either in person or virtually. Performance tasks work well especially when students do not all have access to the same materials. Rachelle Dene, a Spanish and STEAM teacher at Riverview Junior-Senior High School in Oakmont, PA, said “PBL has been a good option for students to explore their own interests. It can also be a good opportunity to engage families in learning together. It provides valuable learning experiences for students in a variety of grade levels and helps students develop future-ready skills.” 

A quick Internet search brings up many additional ideas and examples of ways to present content virtually. For example, record your presentations, use other videos, post online readings, and other resources, establish small, online study teams, and so on. Kids will also need ways to respond virtually and regularly communicate with you and one another online. Remote learning makes it simple to promote student choice, foster the development of digital citizenship skills, and extend learning to meet students’ interests and needs. Here are 5 ways Defined Learning can facilitate remote learning


For information on getting started with PBL, check out these articles written by educators who are passionate about engaging their students in PBL. 

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