Powerful Learning Through PBL

Project-based learning (PBL) is something that I thought I knew a lot about a few years ago. As a language teacher, for many years I had been assigning my students to complete projects which I thought were authentic PBL. However, after some attendance at conferences and reading, I realized that I had simply been assigning projects and so made it my mission to learn about authentic PBL and bring it into my classroom. Over the past couple of years, it has been a really great learning experience not just for my students but also for me because of all of the information that they share and the impact that it makes for them in learning.

As many of our schools are still potentially either hybrid or fully virtual, it has proven quite beneficial to have strategies or digital tools in our “toolkit” that work well for any transitions we may need to make. PBL is a great option for any grade level or content area and something that can be done in any learning environment.

My focus is always on providing authentic and meaningful opportunities that enable all students to engage in learning. I ask myself what types of learning experiences I can provide for students that foster collaboration and the building of relationships, regardless of our physical classroom space. I also look for experiences that will best prepare them for college and careers and the future. Creating experiences that promote student choice by leveraging technology with purpose is achieved through PBL.

Focusing on student-driven learning

In the past year with school closures and uncertainties, a positive was that it gave us a push to explore new ideas and digital tools, as well as perhaps go back to some prior methods we had used. In my experience, PBL worked well for my students and is a good choice for any content area, grade level, or even teacher experience with using PBL in the classroom. We have to take some risks and explore these methods that bring about powerful student learning opportunities.

For anyone new to what PBL is, explore some of the blogs shared through Defined Learning. One additional resource that I refer to is PBLWorks. I started with their resources and then tried to build my own experience implementing it in my classroom. As we look for innovative and more student driven activities that will best prepare them for the future, because PBL is an iterative process it helps students to become more independent learners and even become more motivated. Students shift their focus to the process of learning itself more rather than on a number of points or a final product.

The reason I think that PBL is a great option for all teachers to explore is because whether we are in our classrooms, or hybrid or virtual learning, the learning space itself does not matter. We can leverage digital tools and offer students an opportunity to design problems to solve, explore curiosities and passions, and as a result, focus more on the process rather than the product of learning. PBL offers many benefits and as we look to essential future ready skills, we can promote SEL through goal setting, self-management and decision making and also address the 4 C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. Now we need to find some tools to use for learning anywhere with PBL!

Tools for PBL

The use of digital tools to connect with other students, educators and experts adds to the authenticity and meaningfulness of the work they are doing. We can use PBL or challenge-based learning to connect students with real-world experiences. Perhaps students want to explore careers or learn about an area of interest that helps them to identify potential career options for the future, PBL is a great choice for this.
Through PBL, I have learned more about my students and their personal and future professional aspirations. In exploring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for example, some students became interested in careers they learned about while completing their PBL work. These experiences uncovered interests that in some cases, students did not know that they had. PBL promotes the development of SEL skills and students also become better at collaborating and providing ongoing feedback and support to their peers.

Tools that we can use for PBL:

  1. PBL Platforms: Using Defined Learning, educators and students can explore a library of standards-aligned projects, which includes rubrics and related documents, videos, and website links, which makes it easy to get started. Students can work with classmates and teachers through the collaboration feed and build digital portfolios to better track their work and monitor their goals and progress.
  2. Collaborative spaces: There are so many ways that students can exchange ideas and share resources using whiteboard spaces or other collaborative boards. Some of our favorite options include using Padlet, Wakelet, and Whiteboard Chat or relying on Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom or other LMS. Students can interact and work together in the virtual space. These options also promote the sharing of student work with a larger public audience, potentially even global collaboration.
  3. Power of voice: Providing authentic and timely feedback is critical for learning. Students should also have the opportunity to provide peer feedback and communicate and collaborate with classmates. A few tools to explore that offer video and voice features include Anchor, Flipgrid, and Synth. Using Flipgrid, there are thousands of topics available in the library that help to promote inquiry. My students have found topics through career explorations on Flipgrid and used these to decide on a PBL focus and then pitched their ideas to classmates.
  4. Reflections, revisions and project workflow: We need to create a space for students to work through the phases of PBL, develop project management skills and engage in peer feedback and support.

Whether we use tools like Google or Microsoft Forms for students to share ideas, do a reflection or provide feedback, it facilitates better communication through all learning spaces. One recent option that I found was Headrush which is a PBL management system. Using this system, teachers can help students build and stay on track with their PBL journey through the use of task boards, to-do lists, and options to create a digital portfolio of artifacts for their PBL work.

These are just a few ways that we can amplify learning opportunities for students, not just in the methods used, but in the tools that we bring in to facilitate those methods. With PBL and these tools, we help students to build vital SEL skills, prepare for their future education and careers, and engage in more authentic and personalized learning experiences which do not depend on a specific learning environment.


About the Author: 

Rachelle Dene is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She serves as the President of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. Author of ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking,” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU” and “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” Rachelle Dene’s latest book is with ISTE “Chart A New Course: A Guide to Teaching Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s World  is now available. Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915. Rachelle has a podcast, ThriveinEDU available at https://anchor.fm/rdene915


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