Why Project-Based Learning Works

The phrase “voice and choice” has been used a lot in education. Sometimes these buzz words can lose value due to overuse, but within the context of project-based learning (PBL) this term is essential! PBL in the classroom can be an effective instructional approach when the voices of our students are at the center of teaching and learning. When we implement PBL, it is the voice of students and the choices that they make that truly drive the learning process.

PBL is an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a topic and learn in a variety of ways. It is an approach that is based in inquiry, research, and collaboration. It involves students engaging in teamwork, problem solving, and utilizing technology to advance their learning. PBL includes questioning, discussion, connecting with experts, and communicating with authentic audiences. It is not just doing a project. It is a comprehensive approach to studying a topic in a way that is inclusive of all types of learners working together to find answers to one driving question.

This instructional approach requires time and flexibility on the part of the teacher, as they take on the role of facilitator and guide as opposed to instructor. It requires interest and effort on the part of the students, as they take on a leadership role and move the learning forward. While PBL is not simply a project, it does take a project approach offering authentic learning for students.

Amplifying Student Voice

It is one thing to offer opportunities for students to use their voice in the classroom. It is a completely different thing to lift up student voice and allow that voice to be an empowered force in the teaching and learning process. Giving students a voice in the classroom builds motivation to learn and also fosters a growth mindset. As students use their voice to make decisions and advocate for themselves, they also build independence and confidence in the learning process. This can happen with elementary students, as well as those in middle school and high school.

Student voice is more than giving students the opportunity to speak, discuss, argue, and promote. When teachers empower student voice, it means that they are giving a platform to lead change. Student voice occurs when students plan a rally to support individuals rights or when they organize a fundraiser to help needy families. Student voice is fostered within the classroom with the hope that it will carry into the community and across the globe, so that students will see the positive impact they can create when they use their voice for social good.

Embed Student Choice

These examples all offer some type of student choice, each with a different level of student decision-making:

  • “I let students choose which activity they want to do first.”
  • “Our classroom uses flexible seating and students can decide which seat works best for them.”
  • “In our class, students can choose who they want to work with.”
  • “Students are able to select topics that they are passionate about and engage in ongoing research, resulting in a culminating project that is shared with others.”

 All are positive steps to embed student choice into the classroom, but the last example is one that represents the level of choice that PBL can provide. We can fully immerse students in learning when we step aside and allow them to truly make choices in what matters. Project-based learning works in the classroom because students feel empowered to make important decisions.

Student choice in the classroom can take on many forms. We can employ choice in the design of the classroom, including where students sit and what furniture is available. Choice can exist within the way we plan for instruction, giving students options for what to learn and how. We can also include opportunities for different types of assessment as a way to embrace student choice.

Within PBL, student choice should be a driving force. When we take on project-based learning and other student-centered approaches, we are boldly stating that our students are part of the planning process.

Combining Super Powers

When we can combine the power of both voice and choice in the classroom, students become leaders of learning. They are empowered to take risks and make a difference in their community and beyond. This is what a project-based learning approach can do for your students. This is why PBL works. It is an effective way for students to take ownership and engage in meaningful work.

Full implementation of project-based learning isn’t a perfect fit for all teachers. Giving voice and choice to our students means that we have to build trust and risk failure. We have to open to offering choices to students that may or may not work out. We have to be willing to step back and let out students step up so that their voices can be heard loud and clear.

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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