A Shortcut to Introducing Your Students to the Benefits of Project Based Learning

In this 6-part series, I'll be sharing best practices and advice from educators that I interview in my fifteen-minute online Bam! Radio Podcast; Practical PBL Strategies


In this sixth episode, I spoke with Jorge Valenzuela. Jorge is an education coach, author, and advocate for bringing PBL and STEM into the classroom. In this episode, Jorge offers some great tips for how educators can get started with PBL and why it matters.  


How do we start with authentic PBL?

For several years, I thought that I was doing PBL with my students and realized that I was not. When I explored the elements of authentic PBL, at first, I felt like it was too much. Jorge’s advice for someone who is thinking about doing PBL but may be hesitant to dive in is this: don't dive in fully. It's an instructional approach. It's a teaching methodology and for a lot of people, it's something brand-new. As we are moving through the school year and in most cases, with one semester left, Jorge recommends that educators choose a project to do for 3 to 4 weeks. “Don't change your entire curriculum in one shot. It takes time to get started with this, so take it step-by-step.” There is a time investment, so if we're looking at options for bringing PBL in, whether elementary, middle, or high school levels, we need to think it through first.


What do you suggest to teachers who aren't thinking about diving in and trying short-term PBL? 

Jorge says before anything becomes a “mindset” it needs to become a framework. He recommends finding a framework for PBL that can be used for defining the student experience. High-quality PBL (HQPBL) will be the most beneficial to use. Jorge says that educators from all around the world focus on this framework and the six elements of HQPBL which bring many opportunities for real-world, meaningful learning. 

According to Jorge, the framework leads educators to focus on reflection, which he says is key in this work. “We want our students to also focus on reflection. Focus on challenges and our methods.” When we use this framework as a guideline, “as we're designing, we are better able to incorporate what we're teaching.” We can focus on our content, whether CTE, math, science, languages, and we do this through a “recipe” or a framework, for how we're going about it.” 


What are topics that will help educators to become more comfortable with PBL as they're diving in?

Jorge likes to keep the PBL experiences open-ended. By doing this, we can focus on important topics in education like computer science, engineering, environmental education, and SEL. The framework and instructional approaches we use are project-based learning.” As teachers do this more, Jorge says “Repetition is the mother of skill.”  We become better at it. We start with the framework and we get into the flow, then it becomes a mindset and it no longer feels like a framework.  It is part of what we do.

Sometimes as educators, we end up using certain methods in our classrooms and we don't necessarily realize the benefits they are having on our students. For example, doing different activities like learning stations or game-based learning, or PBL, helps students build their SEL skills even though we may not have that as our focus. 

Looking at high-quality PBL, (HQPBL) there are a lot of things we are already doing in our classroom, that are addressing these essential SEL skills, looking at the framework of high-quality  PBL, project management, reflection, collaboration, students can build the SEL skills in many different ways, while engaged in learning that is truly authentic and meaningful.

For teachers, finding ways to integrate different methods and tools to connect with the real world is so beneficial. Using methods like PBL is helpful to help them best prepare students for what is coming in the future because of all of the ways students will build their skills through more authentic learning experiences.


What are some benefits of PBL that you've seen? 

Understanding what is happening in the real world. One example is looking at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). When we look at real-world issues like poverty, hunger, gender equality, education, sanitation, 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. These opportunities give students choice in how to share that learning whether by creating a blog, a podcast, or a video, whatever is that they want. 

Through the power of voice and choice, 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. 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.


How do students share what they have learned?

For many students, there's always an end product. However, now that we have so many options with technology to connect our students with other classrooms, and other resources, we connect our students with learning from the world. It brings so many benefits. However, it can be a bit overwhelming when there is so much choice infused into learning. So we need to take it step by step, as Jorge says “Choose a focus, set a timeline,  work through the framework together, and continue to reflect.” These are important components. For educators, embracing the changes and challenges that a new experience brings is also important. Being open and sharing that it's a new experience, what our hopes are for doing this, and engaging our students in these conversations, makes a big difference for our students to feel valued in their learning.


Advice to educators who want to start tomorrow

Jorge recommends doing one project this semester. Try a performance task. He suggests looking at the  Jay McTighe “Grasps” task scenario. He says “It's a lot like PBL, in a performance task. Students assume a real-world role, present to an audience and they have to make a product.” These are the types of experiences that students need, and some of the goals that we strive for in PBL or experiential learning will push learning beyond our classroom, to other classrooms, to the community, to experts, and people in the real world.

The PBL experience will look different for everybody, but in the end, PBL provides opportunities and ways for each student to have input into their learning and to meet students where their interests and needs are. It does the same for teachers as well. The key is to have it be authentic and purposeful. When students see the connection to the work that they're doing and its relevance to the world, it becomes more meaningful.

About Jorge Valenzuela

Jorge is an education coach, author and advocate. He has years of experience as a classroom and online teacher, a curriculum specialist and a consultant. His work focuses on improving teacher preparation in project-based learning, computational thinking and computer science integration, STEM education, and equity and SEL integration. Valenzuela is an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University and the lead coach at Lifelong Learning Defined. His book Rev Up Robotics and its companion jump start guide Ready, Set, Robotics! are available from ISTE, and his next book, which dives deeper into the Equity and SEL Integration Framework, is forthcoming from Solution Tree. Follow Jorge on Twitter at @JorgeDoesPBL.


Rachelle Dené

Rachelle Dené Poth is an ed-tech consultant, presenter, attorney, author, and teacher. Rachelle teaches Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology at Riverview Junior-Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle has a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She is a Consultant and Speaker, owner of ThriveinEDU LLC Consulting. She is an ISTE Certified Educator and currently serves as the past -president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network and on the Leadership team of the Mobile Learning Network. At ISTE19, she received the Making IT Happen Award and a Presidential Gold Award for volunteer service to education. She is also a Buncee Ambassador, Nearpod PioNear, and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. Rachelle is the author of seven books and is a blogger for Getting  Smart, Defined Learning, and NEO LMS. Follow Rachelle on Twitter at @Rdene915 and Instagram at @Rdene915. Listen to Rachelle's podcast, ThriveinEDU, here: https://anchor.fm/rdene915.


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