8 Essential Elements of Project Based Learning

Whether you are a first-time PBL teacher, or a seasoned practitioner, it is a great exercise to reflect upon the essential components of a meaningful project.

If you follow me on Twitter, or have ever read my blog, you know I am a big fan of Project Based Learning (PBL). I firmly believe an emphasis on creative, innovative projects (not the dioramas from our childhood) challenges the current paradigm of education. PBL makes learning relevant, engaging, and authentic. PBL demands and develops 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Whether you are a first-time PBL teacher, or a seasoned practitioner, it is a great exercise to reflect upon the essential components of a meaningful project. The Buck Institute, a pioneer and thought leader, offers eight essential elements for project based learning. As c0-founder and Chief Learning Officer of CrowdSchool, I constantly use these eight essential elements to pair pedagogy with the development of our web application.

1. Significant Content: As Suzie Boss writes in Time to Debunk Those PBL Myths, there is a distinction between coverage and deep learning. While it may be true that a teacher cannot ‘cover’ it all with PBL, projects can and should emphasize important knowledge and concepts related to standards. Rather than passive interaction with content, PBL challenges students to interact with, to challenge with depth, and to think critically about content.

2. A Need to Know: Instead of pushing information on students or bribing them with rewards, the project itself can motivate students to seek knowledge. An entry event, something such as a discussion, problem, movie, expert, or field trip, hooks students into inspiration and engagement. This is not so much an assignment, as it is a quest or personally important mission.

3. A Driving Question: The Driving Question helps guide students in their path of inquiry and highlights the major theme or point. It give students a ‘sense of purpose and challenge’, clarifying some of the expected outcomes.

4. Student Voice and Choice: Intrinsic motivation shines when students take responsibility and ownership over their own learning. Choice allows for projects to become personally meaningful and relevant to students. It also makes sense for teachers to gradually allow more voice and choice as their experience with PBL grows.

5. 21st Century Skills: This has been a buzz word for some time. How do schools develop more critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication? Filling in bubbles on standardized tests is not the solution. On the other hand, giving students the opportunity to do things like presenting a unique idea, creating tasks after a team brainstorm, or shifting through internet resources allows them to practice skills and build valuable experience.

6. Inquiry and Innovation: Students like a good question just like the rest of us. Better yet, students love to answer questions they pose. Students are more than able to create new questions, test ideas, and interpret conclusions. In fact, students can learn from failure, if we set up the right environment. ‘With real inquiry comes real innovation.’

7. Feedback and Revision: Often times this step is neglected or rushed. High quality, impressive work is often the result of multiple iterations and authentic feedback. The teacher, along with peers, participates in a cycle of review and coaching, rather than consternation. Rounds of improvements stress the fact work should be of a certain standard. PBL also shows that learning is a process, rather than a race with a start and finish.

8. Authentic Audience, Publicly Presented Product: I was once at a school where teachers joked that student work often went to the secret file folder. That folder shared a home with the Grouch, it was the trash. How do you think that made students feel? Schoolwork, just like any work, is more meaningful when other people benefit, or are inspired, by it. Introducing final projects to a public audience like parents, community leaders, professors, or the Internet opens up a world of possibilities. Students are valued as learners and individuals. Talk about high expectations!

Here is a basic rule of thumb to keep in mind when designing and working through project-based learning:

Student must perceive it (the project) as personally meaningful, as a task that matters.

We all want to, and deserve to complete, work that matters.

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