Sunday, November 27, 2011

What Makes Project Based Learning Effective? #Edchat #EngChat

Creativity Forever
By von_brandis
I've been meaning to write about my adventures in Project Based Learning for a while. It's a topic many teachers are interested in, but are unsure of how to implement it or know if it is working. After much thought, I have broken down Project Based Learning into the 5 parts that make it effective in the classroom.

Long before my Epic Romeo and Juliet Project, the first major project I created was during my student teaching 10 years ago. I thought it would be a great idea to do a mock trial in my class after reading Huck Finn. I wanted to have the students put Mark Twain on trial for being a racist. At the time, there was some more uproar across the nation on whether or not Huck should be taught in schools. We had discussed the topic in class and I thought this would be a great way for students to explore both sides of the issue and make up their mind.

As I look back at the project (and ahead as I prepare to bring it back), I notice all of the things that made this project work that lead to deep understanding. Here are 5 major parts of Project Based Learning that make it valuable to the classroom.

1. OWNERSHIP is key. For this project, the students were not listening to me on why Twain was or was not a racist, they were showing me and the rest of class what they thought. They were invested in winning their argument. They knew that their work was going to determine if he was guilty or not. Although I gave the assignment, the students were in charge the rest of the way. It was their project and they wanted to do it win. When students feel they own what they are doing, they will work harder. When the audience is larger, they want to impress everyone. These are not crazy ideas, they are the results of owning the work they are doing. OWNERSHIP is a major factor in the value of PBL.

2. CREATIVITY is the another major part of the PBL and is closely linked with OWNERSHIP. Students were allowed to be creative in their work as a lawyer or witness. Witnesses needed to stay within character, but could add their own elements on the witness stand. Allowing the students to create gives them a bigger sense of OWNERSHIP.

3. Another part of the PBL is the COLLABORATION. Students were working with each other trying to decide the best plan of attack. Witnesses would meet with their lawyers and discuss how the questions they were going to ask and how they should dress. The Jury worked on group projects researching the previous public opinions on Twain and his writing. Students were sharing ideas freely with one another. I had three sections of American Lit at the time, so I had three trials running. Lawyers would help others in the other classes and trash talk the opposing lawyers as well. It was all in good fun, but the collaboration had students working hard with one another to accomplish this goal.

4. Depending on how you set up your project, CRITICAL THINKING, is also an important part of PBL. With my Twain Trial, students needed to think about both sides of the argument. Students needed to prepare their witnesses for potential cross-examination questions. They needed to anticipate problems each witness presented and be prepared to counter them. In a world were homework can be tedious and memorization rules supreme, PBL is a great way to get kids thinking critically.

5. Lastly, Project Based Learning has to be FUN! It seems obvious, but I have seen many projects that are very tedious. They have kids go through the motions and leave very little room for FUN or CREATIVITY. Projects are a chance for students to break the regular routine of reading and writing in some classes. Most kids are excited to do a project because they finally see it as a chance to express themselves in a format other than a test or essay. The FUN comes from the freedom students feel. Working with their friends (COLLABORATION), taking charge of their learning (OWNERSHIP), solving real problems (CRITICAL THINKING) and allowing students to create (CREATIVITY) all lead to the students learning in a FUN environment.

Next week, my students will be creating their own Transcendentalist Society. My friend and I tweaked a lesson from Gwen S. Price. I'm excited because this will be the first major project my students have done this year and they will be using the iPads for the first time. My kids are excited to get to work on the project and I can't wait to see what they create. I look forward to sharing their work with all of you.

If you have any thoughts on bringing PBL to your classroom, please do not hesitate to contact me.

- @TheNerdyTeacher


  1. This is fantastic! Not just because it outlines how a project should be constructed, but it uses an example of an language classroom, where meaningful inquiry can be a challenge. Thank you for sharing your work.

  2. I've found that reflection is a big key as well. Having student do 'the thing' is important but equally as important is the ability to reflect upon it. My students reflect after each project commenting on what they've learned, what was tough, what went well, what they would do differently next time, etc. This is blogged along with the product and stays in their learning portfolio. This works. We don't reflect immediately after finishing the work, rather giving it a few days to sit, settle and then reflect.

  3. We've been doing a lot of PBL, inquiry-based learning, student-led learning, etc (all those fancy acronyms) this year. Our students are creating their guiding questions and really taking their learning down paths that they are choosing (in most cases). Ownership has been huge, fun is always key, but something that I've seen to motivate my students is follow through. Perhaps this is simply a local problem, or a problem a "friend" of mine has had, but often these grandios projects don't get finished the way students anticipate or that teachers had planned. Things come up, schedules change, students are absent; all kinds of things can happen and something gets off track and the whole project seems derailed. I've seen teachers make accommodations to finish the task sooner or make changes that make it seem like nothing gets finished at all. So far we've followed through with all of our projects this year. Have they been perfect? No. But the students feel that sense of accomplishment, good or bad, and are ready to go on to the next one. They are enjoying the process and the momentary finish lines that provide them with the feedback they need to move on. I love this discussion on PBL. It's been a whole new world for most my students a lot still struggle with the "team" mentality and the persistence it takes. By the end of the year, I hope we still continue to struggle hear and there, but only because I want all our teachers and students to know that learning is an imperfect and often messy process. And really, that's what makes it fun.

  4. Great Post!

    What I really like about the list you gave is that it applies to both students and teachers. The best PBL gives teachers OWNERSHIP of their curriculum. It fosters CREATIVITY of teachers in project design. The best PBL is COLLABORATIVE either in design or in team-teaching classroom and fosters input from other teachers. It forces teachers to be CRITICAL THINKERS when deciding upon the intended outcomes of the projects. And, as a PBL practitioner, it is FUN!

    Thanks for the post. --Geoff

  5. Another bonus is that students learn to plan.

    Before they start a project, students sketch out what the final project should "look like". Then, they break the project into steps and list materials they will need.

    Students can assign time values to steps (or "chunks") of a project. By giving time values to steps, students can better plan their class and homework time.

    When students work in pairs, they can assign "chunks" to individuals in the group - lessening the "I did it all and he/she did nothing" problem.

    Once students can effectively plan, they become more self-directed learners.

    Janet |

  6. Thanks for this information. I am going to attempt PBL in 2013 with my new class. These tips will certainly assist me. :)

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