How PBL Empowers Learners

PBL or project-based learning is happening in K-12 classrooms in ways that incorporate a deep understanding of content while infusing creative and empowering opportunities for students.  A third-grade student shares this reflection after her class completed a project-based learning experience that centered around the history of her community. Their driving question--how can we explore and share the diverse history of our community?

“There were so many things I never knew about my community! My favorite part was talking to the people at the senior center and hearing their stories. I also liked creating our digital history book about everything we found out. Finding all of the old pictures was cool, too! I really like design, so organizing them and putting the images into a digital book was the perfect job for me.”

In this example, the student engaged in a month-long project-based learning experience about her community. She and her classmates researched, planned, and conducted interviews, and reviewed data and information. They used skills like collaboration to work within small teams. Students also tapped into technology skills as they connected with community members virtually, recorded video interviews, and edited the content. The project culminated in a digital history book that included pictures, interview footage, and audio clips, which were presented at a county council meeting and posted to the school and other local websites.

Why PBL?

Project-based learning is more than just embedding projects into your classroom. It is an opportunity for students to be empowered to make choices, explore local and global interests, and make authentic connections to their learning. Students who engage in project-based learning in their classrooms have opportunities to extend that learning beyond the classroom walls. Connections to people in the community and authentic audiences make project-based learning more than just a lesson. It is an experience that builds future-ready schools and prepares learners for possible future careers. 

Project-based learning begins with a driving question. While driving questions are broad in nature, it does provide a focus for the experience. From the driving questions come different ways to answer the question. This is where the learning takes place!  Here are some other community-based driving questions:

  • How does geography impact different communities?
  • How might we use our school to inspire people to take care of the environment?
  • How does the food grown in our region impact what people eat?
  • How can communities work together to protect local wildlife?

Student choice

   Within classrooms that engage in project-based learning, students and teachers take on different roles. Teachers become facilitators, offering suggestions and providing support, while students become the driving force behind the pathway to learning content in STEM, language arts, or social studies. This shift in classroom practice is a positive step towards empowering learners. 

Whether students are writing a letter to a community official, creating a video public service announcement, or engaging in dialogue with corporations, they are taking the lead in their learning in project-based learning. PBL creates an opportunity for students to build independence in the classroom, as they determine how they will pursue their learning. Promoting student decision-making in learning, not only builds responsibility but can also support social-emotional development

Project-based learning isn’t about tests and quizzes or a defined scope and sequence. It is an instructional strategy that taps into student interest in a way that allows them to make choices in how to show their understanding. It offers choice in materials and topics, but also in student assessment.

Authentic connections

Within project-based learning, students dive deep into content and explore all facets of the topic they are studying which culminates in an authentic experience. This might be an event that students planned, a showcase of learning, or a video presentation. An important part of project-based learning is that there is a connection with an authentic audience. While that often happens during the culmination of the learning, partnerships and authentic connections can happen throughout a PBL experience. Whether connecting with local business owners or meetings with community leaders, students are establishing connections with experts in the field. Not only are they learning about different careers, but they are also building critical skills for the future, such as active listening, public speaking, and relationship building. 

The students in the opening example created authentic connections throughout their project. Establishing a relationship with the senior center and those who worked on the community council became more connected to the school through this experience. Students also made connections with a local graphic designer who helped the students with their digital book. The culminating project also created an authentic connection as students had the chance to speak in a public forum among other citizens of all ages, business owners, and local government officials. 

The experience showed students that their voices mattered and that the work that they were doing was important, not only to them but to their community. Through project-based learning, the students built skills in important content areas, but even more important knowledge of themselves as members of a community larger than their school. For students at any grade level, PBL is one way for them to feel empowered through their learning as they develop importance skills and build confidence.


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.


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