Knowledge Discovered > Knowledge Received

The Case for Project-Based Learning

By Esther Park @hawaiiest

Imagine This:

You have just finished learning a unit on early European explorers. The teacher tells you to create a diorama and hands you a checklist of requirements you must fulfill. How do you demonstrate your understanding of early European explorers with a figure of Christopher Columbus on a ship? What concept or skill mastery can the teacher actually assess with your product? What is it that you really learned about early European explorers? Why do teachers assign students projects like these?

Too often projects are teacher-directed initiatives assigned only at the end of a unit. The focus is placed on answering questions that have already been assigned. The teacher asks students to follow a specific set of directions that have been outlined, which leaves very little room for student choice on how to demonstrate their learning. The teacher may not even need to be present for the actual creation process. The final products end up being more or less the same, only to be graded and returned for students to take home. They sit on a shelf collecting dust or go straight to the recycling bin without making an impact on the student or the real world.

How is Project-Based Learning Different?

There are several elements that make up project-based learning but simply put, the learning process is student-driven and teacher-facilitated. Students determine what they want to learn by posing their own driving questions about a topic or unit. Students identify a real-world problem they want to solve within its context and collaborate with others with similar interests. Students create a product of their choice using multimedia tools that best fit the purpose of the project. Students share their product or solution with an authentic audience of their choice (e.g, school-wide assembly, legislators, etc.) and reflect on areas for improvements and change. The teacher’s role is then to work with students throughout the learning process by guiding and pushing their thinking. The teacher may also assist in connecting students to external resources to further their investigation. Project-based learning is an ongoing learning process that is authentic and engaging.

Taking a Risk to Grow in My Practice

I was drawn to the authenticity of the project-based learning approach and energized by the possibility of deeper learning for my students. I imagined my students fully engaged, excited to learn, and retaining what they discovered. It would provide my students an opportunity to build and practice 21st century skills that will prepare them for their future careers.

Eager to try something new, I was anxious thinking about the inevitable factors of uncertainty. Managing several different ongoing projects at once seemed pretty daunting. I was unsure of how to pace and structure the working timeline. I wondered if I had adequate resources available for my students. What if it fails? But what if we succeed? The benefits my students would take away from project-based learning were much louder and clearer than the sounds of my own doubts.

Last year, I decided to implement project-based learning in my own classroom with the support of my colleagues. I taught a mini unit titled “Diversity & Inclusion” during our Language Arts block where we discussed issues of race & ethnicity, gender stereotypes, and disabilities at the elementary level. Once the students became curious about the subtopics, I guided them in identifying a real world problem to shape their driving question. The students conducted research to gain background knowledge and brainstormed potential solutions. When I checked in with the students, I was completely floored by the ideas proposed by my fifth graders.

What Does Project-Based Learning Look Like?

Project-based learning looks like two students realizing how gender stereotypes can hurt people’s feelings. They discuss how they can play a role in making people of both genders feel equal. They decide to interview fellow students with survey questions they have created (Should all girls like pink? Should boys be smarter than girls?). After hearing the biases first-hand, they work with a sense of urgency to collect data, identify patterns, and create a video to communicate the results to their peers. Project-based learning motivates students to take initiative in practicing both standards-based skills and 21st century skills that are necessary to their success.

Project-based learning looks like four students holding a discussion to identify the cause of gender stereotypes. A student poses a question, “Where did cooties even come from?” which leads the group to research the concept and to trace its origin. The intention of creating a skit evolves into a PSA video titled “Cootie Shots” which aims to prevent gender-based bullying in elementary schools. Project-based learning allows students to explore their curiosities and pursue creativity in ways that best suit their current interests.

Project-based learning looks like a student recognizing the very real problem of discrimination and feeling compelled to take action. The student rewrites the lyrics to a popular song (All of Me by John Legend) to articulate her thoughts on diversity and inclusion.

The student decides to include homeschooled students in helping her sing and record the song. She then posts the video on YouTube in hopes of reaching and inspiring a global audience. It is about seeing the glimmer of excitement in the student’s eyes when she tells you that the video has reached over 1,000 views. Project-based learning helps students realize that their work has the potential to move and even change the hearts and minds of others.

Project-based learning looks like two boys learning about the challenges of being blind and wanting to raise awareness of blindness. The students decide to code a mini game called “What It Feels Like” in which the player must find a gold key by clicking on a screen that has been blacked out. It is about seeing these two fifth grade boys spelling out the rules to a line of second graders wanting to play their game. Project-based learning emphasizes relevance to students because they have the prerogative to choose their own audience. The final product is not intended for the sole purpose of receiving a grade from a teacher but rather as a vehicle to influence and interact with others in a positive manner.

What Do the Students Think?

This year, I posed the following question to my current 10 and 11-year old students: Why should more teachers try project-based learning (PBL) in the classroom? I have categorized their responses into four main areas. Here is what the students have to say:

1) PBL engages students to learn for themselves.

“It’s more fun because you’re not just sitting at your desk all day being bored.” — Talmadge M.
“Some people who didn’t like studying before might like it because you get to ask your own questions and have fun learning about what you want to learn.” — Brandon A.
“It gives the students a chance to teach themselves more in depth.” — Haylee B.

2) PBL promotes communication and collaboration among students.

“When you work alone you can get confused, but when you work with a group, you can ask questions to your partners instead of always asking the teacher.” — Tyler M.
“In addition to what Tyler said, I think when you’re in a group, you can think of better ways to figure out problems.” — Omari M.

3) PBL provides students with a choice in their final product.

“There is a wide variety of products that you can choose. You can make a binder or a book filled with information. You can make a slideshow. If you like action, you can make a play or a puppet show.” — Beaux S.

4) PBL connects students to real world problems that matter.

“I like that it’s about real world problems. There are a lot of bad things happening in the world right now. If I could pick one problem I want to solve, it would be poaching.” — Tyler M.
“PBL can change the world because it can get people to care.” — Beaux S.

The Importance of Assisting Student Discovery

Project-based learning truly captures the idea that knowledge discovered is more powerful than knowledge received. Nothing excites students more than learning about something meaningful and relevant to their own lives. Students exude joy as they design and create a product that has the potential to make an impact on the world around them. As an educator, project-based learning helps me reground myself in the idea that teaching is about assisting student discovery.

My first attempt in project-based learning was in no way perfect, but the lessons I have learned throughout this process are now indispensable tenets of my journey as an educator. How I choose to facilitate and structure the learning process in the classroom is up to me. No matter how challenging it may be, I know that I must continue to empower my students to take the lead in their own learning.

The students have spoken.