I always purchase a few Christmas presents for myself. Usually, these gifts turn out to be books floating around on my to read list. So, this Christmas, I decided to treat myself to a new Hack Learning Series book.
Project based learning has a long history in American education, dating back to John Dewey and other early advocates of learning by doing. The project approach has gotten a second wind over the past few decades, as a key strategy to engage diverse learners in rigorous learning. I remember the first time I implemented PBL in my classroom. Our real world problem for my third graders was one that a student discussed in her blog and led to a classroom discussion. She was scared to ride a roller coaster over the summer. Her friends continued to tease her about it. She was hoping to learn more about roller coasters to ease her fear. Her question in her blog was simple, “How can a roller coaster car even stay on track?”.
With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to have my learners design and build their own roller coaster during our force & motion unit for science. Although I had never designed a PBL unit, I had done quite a bit of research to assist with my planning and understanding of implementation. My students collaborated together, discussed ideas, and researched how best to design their roller coaster. We viewed Disney Imagineering videos, interviewed an engineer from Hershey Park and were so fortunate to have a parent (and engineer) come and assist with our designs. Their hands on exploration of potential and kinetic energy, as well as friction, carried over into other areas. My learners were writing about their trials and errors, reading about clothoid loops and even tied-in math when comparing times of their car launch with each design. Did it go smoothly? No, not even close. Was it a learning experience for both learners and teacher? Yes. Did it stop me from implementing PBL into my classroom again? No way. As I look back, I wish I had a step by step outline to assist. I wish, at the time, I had the book Hacking Project Based Learning.
In the book, Hacking Project Based Learning, Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy discuss how to over come challenges that PBL may possibly pose for teachers and students. One of the scariest things about implementing a project based learning approach with your learners is letting go; letting students take ownership of their learning. Even the most creative teachers, who have taken the leap into the PBL waters, continue to find it difficult to let go of their role as teacher, despite having the best intentions for their learners. One reason a teacher may be reluctant to let go of the reins, is the fear of losing control, or that the class may go off in some random direction.
Cooper and Murphy discuss the importance of how to create a vision for a project, and setting the stage for an authentic learning experience. PBL provides an opportunity to help our learners make authentic real world connections. Each morning my learners entered our room, enthusiastic and ready to discuss their ideas. They were eager to share valuable insight with their classmates, and get right to work.
Instruction and learning is different in problem based settings than traditional instruction. Problem based learning provides challenges for evaluation and assessment. Hacking PBL provides a plethora of ideas such as a Progress Assessment Tool and how to evaluate group and individual work. Each year my learners reflect on their PBL project and each year my students’ reflection provides a new piece to the puzzle on how to make the unit better.
“If we want the emphasis to be on the learning and not the grading, we ultimately want to give our students a tool that helps them to self and peer assess throughout the PBL process.”
I have been a huge proponent of Project Based Learning both in my traditional brick and mortar classroom, and the modern cyber classroom, I teach in now. Although they look very different in each environment, my PBL units continue to emphasize solving highly complex, real world problems. PBL requires that students have both fundamental skills (reading, writing, and math) and 21st century skills (teamwork, problem solving, and research). With this combination of skills, students become directors and managers of their learning process. The old school model of learning facts, and then reciting them out of context is no longer sufficient to prepare learners to perform in today’s world. If you’re thinking of implementing PBL into your classroom, do it! Project Based Learning provides a rich learning experience, one that your learners will eagerly devour. Oh, and do yourself a favor, read Hacking Project Based Learning. It is a critical, and necessary component to a successful PBL launch.