The start of each new school year is a great time to try out some new methods and digital tools that can help to amplify learning while also focusing on the development of essential skills for students. A method that works well for any grade level and content area and that provides many benefits beyond learning the content area, is project-based learning (PBL). If you have not implemented PBL into your classroom yet, then the start of the year is the perfect time to dive in. Don’t worry about being an expert. We must be willing to try, to fail, to learn from our mistakes and to try again. It can be uncomfortable at first, but it sets a good model for our students and helps us to continue to grow in our practice.
I truly believe that students need these same opportunities as they explore their passions, design their problems or challenges, and as a result, start to focus more on the learning process itself. To best prepare students for the future, we need to offer experiences that promote curiosity, and student-driven independent learning, and help them to work through productive struggle, reflect, and continue on their learning journey.
Connect students with real-world issues
Bringing in PBL and having students explore issues that are being faced by people around the world helps students to also develop essential SEL skills. In my experience with doing PBL in my Spanish classes, students selected one or more of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For many students, learning about what life is like for people their same age in other countries leaves a lasting impact on their learning. Understanding what is happening in the real world and brainstorming ideas for solutions, and doing this with peers, enhances the learning experience for all students. When we look at real-world issues like poverty, hunger, gender equality, education, or sanitation for example, and through the lens of what can we do to make the world better, it empowers students to drive their learning. When students have choices and find what matters to them, or look globally by leveraging the technology, it amplifies their learning potential.
Through the power of choice and voice, in the framework of PBL, when students engage in it, it brings their talents to life. You see what they choose to focus on, how they identify problems and come up with solutions and connect more deeply with the world beyond their classroom. The power in choice attaches more meaning to what they are learning. When we look at social-emotional learning skills, giving students the PBL opportunities builds skills in social awareness and self-management as well as the other core SEL competencies.
Benefits of PBL
Authentic PBL has been a great way to promote student choice as they explore areas of interest, brainstorm ways to solve a problem or look for challenges that are impacting their community or the world. PBL promotes deeper, student-driven learning which empowers students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and fosters creativity, time management, and leadership skills to name a few. Look at PBL as something on a continuum. We want to build the skills up and help students to become comfortable by adding opportunities for inquiry, flexible learning spaces, and reflection, all of which are components of PBL. Starting with PBL can be overwhelming for some at first because there is not a specific and final end product. It is a process that is ongoing and leaves room for continued exploration. When it comes to learning, at times there may be hesitancy to share or explore their findings, and some students need support as to what to learn about and how to share that learning.
Through PBL, we can help students appreciate the process of learning, its struggles, and successes, rather than focusing on one end product, which many are used to. In my experience starting with PBL, I had initially struggled with this but found that having conversations with students and having them exchange peer feedback helped us all. Working together on the PBL process and being co-learners with students makes a difference. Working with them on their evaluations and also from student-to-student, fosters the development of self-awareness which helps to prepare students with the essential skills they need.
How to start
There are some easy ways to get started with PBL, in some cases just three steps! Every educator will likely start differently depending on grade level, content area, and length of time for doing the PBL. Find what works best for you and your students. You can even find options available that have everything you need to get started, I recently found iBlocks, which I've been exploring and has everything that makes it easier to get started. Take the time to do some research into the ways to implement PBL in your classroom. STEM-focused PBL is a great choice for connecting students with a variety of learning opportunities that will help them to develop some of the in-demand skills of the future. Through PBL, I have been able to learn more about my students and their interests and become a learner along with them. Students are empowered in learning when given opportunities that PBL provides. While in the physical classroom space, PBL promotes the development of SEL skills, students also become better at collaborating and providing ongoing feedback and support to their peers. When it comes to student agency, social-emotional learning helps students to work through challenges, develop their workflow and be better able to understand their skills and the steps they need to take to grow. They develop their independence in learning and self-advocacy skills.
With older students, I have found that keeping the PBL experiences open-ended leads to greater student engagement in learning. Having the chance to focus on topics that matter to them or being guided by teachers in areas where we see a growing need like computer science, engineering, environmental education, and SEL, will have many benefits.
Bringing PBL into the classroom helps us to bring relevance to everything that students and teachers are doing in their learning environments. It makes school real, engaging, and exciting. Students are excited to come to school because they know that the learning they are engaging in matters and it is fueled by choices they have made. With methods like project-based learning (PBL), my students have the opportunity to build language skills while becoming curious about learning as they explore real-world issues. Providing options that promote student agency in learning leads to more meaningful experiences that promote the development of essential skills for the future and empower students.
About the Author:
Rachelle Dené is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s Next in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview 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. Rachelle is an ISTE Certified Educator and serves as the past president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. She was recently named one of 30 K-12 IT Influencers to follow in 2021.