Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching strategy that empowers students to learn by engaging them in inquiry-based learning. Vanessa Vega composed a list of four characteristics of well-done PBL:
- students learning knowledge to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world
- increased student control over his or her learning
- teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
- students (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups
This means that, not only are students given problems that are authentic to the discipline, but students themselves are the ones who figure out solutions to the problems.
The increasing availability of technology means that students have more and more access to the same materials as real-world professionals in every discipline. The ever-changing nature of technology means that we need to train students to be able to think creatively and critically about diverse issues. PBL can help with this.
By having students tackle real-world problems in PBL, we train them to look at the issues in the world around them and seek solutions. This connects school to real life, instead of keeping the two as separate spheres, according to Chris Lehemann and Sylvia Chard in an Edutopia article that brings together the ideas of several experts in PBL.
Some educators are hesitant to adopt project-based learning, both because of challenges and controversy. Implementing well-done PBLs, especially in the discipline of history, requires a great deal of scaffolding and careful front-loading of background information. The fact that all students in PBL do not get the same knowledge, since they learn what relates to their specific project instead, and the possibility for inequality to arise because PBL is most often done in groups both concern many teachers, according to Jody Passanisi & Shara Peters on their MiddleWeb blog.
The challenge of scaffolding is worth the time and effort if it means that students will learn better. And indeed, research and personal experience shows that students learn better when they are the ones actively making meaning of information. Furthermore, students remember better when they are curious about a topic, and PBL, when it is done well, increases student engagement and ownership of their learning.
Despite the potential for inequality to develop in collaborative work, PBL can just as easily increase the equity of the classroom. One example of a group who stands to benefit greatly from project-based learning is girls. Lisa Abel-Palmieri, in an article on how to bridge the gap between girls and STEM, describes something called the “Maker Movement.” This is a PBL movement that allows girls to define their own real-world problems and look for STEM solutions for their problems, rather than adults assigning the girls male-oriented problems, and it has seen success in increasing female involvement in STEM fields.
For further reading on how to implement project-based learning well, here are some articles and blogs I recommend:
- “12 Ideas to Ensure That Project Based Learning is Grounded in Content And Standards,” by Michael Gorman. This article has helpful advice on how to make sure you do not abandon the standards in order to engage students in project-based learning.
- Reinventing Project-Based Learning, a blog by Suzie Boss that contains articles on a variety of issues surrounding PBL.
- New York City Department of Education’s Project-Based Learning handbook gives a detailed walk-through of project based learning, from what it is and why to do it to how to plan and implement a project. This handbook is designed with middle school in mind and contains special sections on social science and science PBL.