Project-Based Learning (PBL) is not an event or a learning extension, but a learning process. It is a valuable experience for every learner, not just for a few. It’s not an enrichment activity or an add-on. It’s not incorporating hands-on activities or a research component to the lesson. It involves learner-centered questions driven by student inquiry not by teacher-driven exploration. It is not about adding something new but rather delving deeper into a topic, asking hard questions, and allowing time to pursue multiple answers.
PBL is the kind of learning that pulls learners in and creates a sense of ownership over what is happening in the classroom. It is an opportunity for every student to access the learning in a way that fits with their interests, strengths, and needs. PBL is for students who speak a language other than English and want their voice to be a part of important discussions. PBL is for students who have learning disabilities and want to collaborate with their typical peers. PBL is for students of every color, ethnicity, or religion who want to lift up the topics that are important to them. PBL is for every student who wants to learn more about others and with others in a way that is relevant to themselves and their community. Defined Learning provides personalized curriculum tools to explore careers with attention to equity and inclusion.
So how can you, as a leader and educator, make sure that the project-based learning in your school is driving at something more than simply doing a project? One way is to ensure that high quality PBL is being implemented. High quality project-based learning should meet six key criteria, as described by Rachelle Dene Poth in her post What’s the Difference Between Projects and Project-Based Learning. These criteria include:
Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment
The criteria allow educators and school leaders to focus on the foundation of project-based learning as a comprehensive learning experience for all students. This approach also shines a light on the importance of the student experience as one that is personal, authentic, and relevant. As students consider meaningful topics to explore and uncover new passions.
How can you make sure that PBL in your school is developing skills students can take into the real world? It is important to have a vision of what success looks like. Many schools have created “portraits of a graduate” to detail what a career-ready graduate should know and be able to do. Take a look at this example from the Salisbury School District. This vision communicates the skills, dispositions, and character traits that the district and school community want every learner to possess.
If PBL is a learning approach that is used in your classroom, school, or district, it is important to look through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Designing PBL experiences should include students of all colors, backgrounds, interests, and abilities. It should serve as a mirror for the students you serve as well as a window so that students can look out and observe others. Asking questions about other places, other cultures, and other individuals can spark powerful inquiry for students.
As educators, we need to reflect on and consider key elements to effective instruction while analyzing the way that the learning impacts all. A PBL experience should offer every learner a way to participate and feel valued. The learning should be driven by an interest in understanding. When planning for project-based learning, consider these questions as you develop the unit with your students.
Questions to Consider:
Is the learning connected to shared concerns and interests of the students?
Do students have the chance to connect ideas both locally and globally?
Does the task have learning goals that align with beliefs of certain groups or do they focus on the betterment of all groups?
Is the task based on a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer that all learners can access and understand?
Does the task promote diverse perspectives?
Does the task have a real-world context that every student can be part of?
These are some questions that might be helpful when considering whether the project-based learning experience you are designing is one that will provide an inclusive, diverse, and equitable experience for students. Perhaps, it is a learning opportunity to uncover different perspectives and new ideas, ones that will push the thinking of students.
Project-based learning can remove barriers to learning. Its collaborative nature and group-approach to problem finding creates an opportunity for every student to take part. As students explore different parts of a problem, they can lead with their personal strengths and interests. Through the authentic and collaborative work with PBL, students will not only build the skills needed to be successful in a career but also developing critical skills such as empathy and understanding as we interact with others in school and in life.
About the author: Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.
Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!
Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career