Project-Based Learning—Key Elements of PBL

Student collaboration in project-based learning PBL

Anyone who spends much time in the education world will hear about project-based learning or PBL. This growing trend is becoming incorporated into more classrooms every day. So what’s the big deal with PBL? What does it entail, and how can it improve student learning?

We found a lot of information about project-based learning. The most succinct definition came from an article by Heather Wolpert-Gawron called What the Heck is Project-Based Learning? Her “elevator speech” answer is, “PBL is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end.”

What are some keys of PBL?

Solving real-world problems

In PBL, students solve authentic problems they really care about. Learning is meaningful to the student and fills an educational purpose. It’s not just something students will need to know “later in life.”

Learning happens through the project

These projects don’t come at the end of the unit, after the learning has taken place. They’re not a culminating project or an enrichment activity—the learning comes as students work on the problem to find a solution.

Student voice and choice

PBL projects are student-designed and student-led. Students choose problems to solve and questions to answer. They take responsibility to refine and revise their projects throughout the process.

Reflection, critique, feedback

In traditional learning, feedback and assessment come at the end and generally just from the teacher. In PBL, students continually reflect on and critique their projects. They receive feedback and assessment from peers and teachers during the entire project.

Public presentation

Project-based learning needs to be presented publicly. Rather than just turning in an assignment to the teacher or presenting it to the class, students present to an authentic audience. Knowing their project will be shared with more than just their teacher motivates students to do their best work.

Teacher-facilitated, student-driven

In PBL, teachers become the facilitators. Students take the driver’s seat and are responsible for moving their projects forward to completion. Teachers provide structure and help along the way, but students own their learning.

If you think project-based learning might be the change you’re looking for in your classroom, check out the links in this article for more information. And come back in a couple weeks when we share how PBL benefits students!

5 Ways to Encourage Student Voice

Lineup of students representing student voice

Young people possess a unique perspective on the world that can enlighten adults. These students are the “customers” of our schools and possess insight into the support they need for healthy development. We give students a voice in school when we listen to their ideas and provide opportunities for them to enact change in their education. When we support student voice, it strengthens students’ confidence and helps them discover their unique skills.

How then do we involve students more in their education and help them become active contributors to their own learning? We found five different ideas.

Student debates and classroom discussions

An organized debate or classroom discussion opens up opportunities for students to share their perspective and ideas with their peers and teacher. For quieter students, brainstorming sessions offer a low-pressure way to get involved. Providing a student microphone can give those students more courage to speak up and give their input.

Incorporate student surveys and feedback

Specifically asking students for their input on their educational experience shows them that we value their opinions. They can give feedback on how the school is functioning overall or even just about their experience with the latest unit in their classroom. Some students desire more involvement and could conduct a study and assessment of the school. With their unique perspective, students’ findings provide valuable insight into schoolwide processes and policies.

Student participation in meetings that apply to them

Educators can involve students in meetings that pertain to them. Rather than talking about a student in an IEP, including that student and talking TO them can help them invest more in their education. Students can lead parent conferences, setting their own goals and discussing areas where they’d like to improve. Students can also participate in education conferences—some even present at these conferences!

Provide opportunities for creative expression

Students may take a more active role in their education when given the option for creative expression in their schoolwork. They can choose to present their efforts through art, essays, or presentations. Additionally, project-based learning and genius hour provide opportunities for students to direct their own learning and explore their own interests.  

Nurture student leadership

We easily spot leaders in the outgoing, outspoken kids, but students demonstrate leadership in other ways. Some students excel at teaching and mentoring other students. Others volunteer in their school and community. All forms of leadership deserve recognition and add value to a school community.

“When schools give students the agency and the tools to speak out, the effects can resonate across students’ lives.” –Leah Shafer

Students are not just future problem-solvers. They can make their schools, communities, and world better today. They just need the opportunity to speak up and have their voices heard.

Makerspaces 101

building blocks

Students today face a future with new challenges and opportunities that are hard to predict and anticipate. As they look at future jobs, they find employers requiring a broader range of skills. To prepare today’s students, innovative educators have explored new teaching strategies. Among these we find teachers giving students the opportunity to explore problem-solving in new, creative ways with makerspaces.

What is a Makerspace?

Makerspaces are collaborative workspaces designed for hands-on creativity. In them, students create a digital or physical product that they share with their class, school, or even community. Makerspaces are dedicated to creating, learning, and exploring. They may include high-tech tools and equipment, like 3D printers, sewing machines, or robotics equipment. They might just use supplies as simple as cardboard, duct tape and art supplies. They provide a space for student-centered and student-directed learning and inquiry.

Why are makerspaces beneficial in education?

As students head into a drastically different workforce than what their parents and grandparents experienced, they need to know how to collaborate with others. Students also need deepened creativity and critical thinking skills to solve unique and constantly shifting challenges. Makerspaces are a prime opportunity to gain this experience by giving learners the opportunity to collaborate while they “explore, experiment and discover.” The opportunity to try, fail, and try again in a safe environment can help students develop persistence and a determination to stick with a challenge until they find a solution.

How to get started?

Getting started can feel overwhelming. Whether you’re looking for ideas on how to set up a makerspace or how to provide equipment and supplies on a tight budget, there’s help. Here are some ideas we found:

  1. Learn from others. The internet and social media are full of guides and tips for getting started and making a makerspace work for you and your students. A little online research can provide a lot of information. You might also be able to visit and experience a makerspace in your area.
  2. Ask the community. Communities can help stock simple supplies like cardboard boxes, paper, popsicle sticks, office supplies, glass jars, etc. Give a wish list to businesses, parents, and post it on social media. Your community can provide experts with specific, technical skills who could assist with a project.
  3. Start small. You can find amazing makerspaces with incredible supplies and equipment, but a simple space can serve the same purpose. It’s even an option to start with one project to introduce the concept and build as you move forward.
  4. Establish expectations. Ask students to help construct guidelines and procedures before getting started so everyone is on the same page.
  5. Make connections. Incorporate maker projects into everyday lessons to “cement the association between real-world curiosity and experimentation to more structured and measured classroom instruction.”

Makerspaces are growing in popularity because they are helping students develop the 21st century skills that employers are looking for. Collaborative, problem-solving opportunities prepare learners for their futures and the challenges they will face when they leave school.

Have you given makerspaces a try? We’d love to hear your experience.

3 Ways to Nurture Student Leadership

Students collaborating

Leadership skills are highly sought after by employers today, so it’s only fitting that they are taught to students from a young age. Many schools offer programs that teach leadership qualities, including student council, peer mentoring groups, safety patrol and student clubs. In addition, here are three small things teachers can do to nurture skills students need to become leaders.

Teach students to believe in themselves and their ability to succeed.

High levels of self-efficacy, or belief in their ability to reach a goal, lead students to challenge themselves. Those students also have higher intrinsic motivation, a key characteristic in students who become adult leaders. We can accomplish this through inquiry-based activities, collaborative learning, and helping students appreciate how far they have come instead of comparing themselves to other students.

Teach students to work together and teach each other.

Communication skills are essential for good leaders, and working in groups helps students develop necessary communication and problem-solving skills. When students teach each other, it requires them to re-read and review material. It improves self-confidence and presentation skills, which are also qualities of a good leader. This can be facilitated through group work, projects, or presentations.

Teach students responsibility and give them more responsibilities over time.

Responsibility entails accountability, self-control, discipline, and trustworthiness. Students practice responsibility by doing their homework, studying for tests, and accepting the consequences when they don’t. When students receive bad grades or have discipline problems, recognize their achievements and help them realize they can do better. Giving out small classroom jobs and daily tasks can also increase their sense of responsibility.

Along with math, reading, and writing skills, students need to develop the qualities that are necessary for college and the work force. Teaching today’s children and adolescents to be leaders from a young age will, without a doubt, better prepare them for the future.

STEM and STEAM: What’s the difference?

The National Science Teachers Associates defines STEM education as an “interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise.” Many schools focus on it today as experts agree it helps prepare young people to become innovators, leaders, educators, and researchers, solving the challenges our world faces and will face in the future.

STEM vs. STEAM

Recently, a new letter has joined the STEM equation: “A” for the arts. Educational organizations define STEAM education as “science and technology, interpreted through engineering and the arts, all based in mathematical elements.” STEAM proponents propose that STEM alone misses key components necessary for students to be prepared for the future. By including the arts, students think creatively, solve problems, have better communication skills, and embrace collaboration.

Much debate has occurred in recent years over the concept of STEM versus STEAM. Some argue that the arts should be kept separate from math and science to not take focus away from them. Others state that STEAM does not take away from the sciences but rather completes it by filling in the gaps. They also claim it provides students with the necessary skills and tools to incorporate the arts into the core subjects. The arts are a piece of the puzzle that will help children succeed and learn the skills necessary to thrive in a rapidly changing world. STEAM proponents agree that science, technology, engineering, and math need to be at the core of education. They then argue that, without the arts, students miss out on a well-rounded education and lack skills to become innovators.

A Perfect Example

A perfect example of how the arts and sciences intertwine and complement each other is early photographer Charles Negre. He painted for many years before he saw daguerreotypes, or early photographs. They astonished him. He began to study the science behind photography—the chemistry, physics, mathematics, and engineering of cameras and photographs.

“Where science ends, art begins… When the chemist has prepared the sheet, the artist directs the lens and the three torches of observation, feeling and reasoning guide the study of nature; photography invokes effects that make us dream, simple patterns excite us, powerful and bold silhouettes that surprise and frighten us… We are now convinced that it is less difficult to reproduce than it is to learn to see nature… Before, the challenge was to replicate nature; today it is to choose from within nature.”

STEM, widely accepted and integrated in schools across the nation, helps students every day to prepare for the future. As STEAM grows in popularity, students are now learning about these core subjects in a way that will help them communicate, adapt, solve problems, and compete in the global market.

Flipped Teaching: How does it benefit students?

At home, a 7th grade student, Michael, watches his teacher’s lecture about photosynthesis online and takes notes. In class the next day, Michael’s class gets into small groups to read an assigned text on photosynthesis and to take more notes. The groups work together to create a storyboard that shows the process of photosynthesis. Michael’s teacher checks students’ understanding through questioning and observation. As discussed in a previous post, flipped teaching is an effective way to transition to a more facilitative learning environment. There are many articles, how-tos, and opinions regarding flipped teaching, but in the end, the question is: how does it benefit students?

  1. Flipping the classroom can be a more efficient way to teach. One study showed that high school students spend an average of 38 hours per week on homework. The flipped learning method reduces work being done at home, allowing learning to occur more efficiently. Flipped teaching also gives students more time with the teacher, allowing them to not only be taught through their lectures, but to have them available to answer questions during the practice part of their learning.
  2. Flipping the classroom can produce significant learning gains. When a flipped model was implemented at Clintondale High School in Clinton Township, Michigan, the entire 9th grade failure rate went down 33% in one year, the English class failure rate decreased from 52% to 19%, and the Math class failure rate decreased from 44% to 13%.
  3. Flipping the classroom can fill in learning gaps. Every school year, students who miss class lose valuable instruction. If it’s the teacher that needs to miss school, entire classes can fall behind while a substitute fills in. However, teachers who use flipped classroom technology can easily upload their lectures for students to learn the material at home, allowing the learning process to continue seamlessly. Parents can also access class material and can more easily explain concepts to their children and help them to understand better.
  4. Flipping the classroom promotes student collaboration and student-centered learning. In a flipped classroom setting, students are not passively soaking in information by simply listening to a lecture. At home, students have the freedom of replaying parts of the lecture they didn’t understand, allowing them to understand the lesson even better. Class time is used more efficiently as teachers answer questions from their students, who had to actively seek to understand the material before arriving in class. While in class, students can take control over their own learning by working with other students to master the lessons they learned at home. This route empowers each student to take an active role in their own education.

Flipped teaching, with time and preparation, can benefit your students in many ways. Its goal, just like many other teaching methods, is to improve student learning and achievement and help students reach their highest potential. Have you tried implementing flipped learning into your classroom?

Fidgeting: The new key to success in the classroom?

As discussed in our Classroom Audio blog, classrooms are noisy. In addition to the myriad of mechanical and environmental sounds, there’s often a symphony of pen clicks, squeaky chairs, tapping feet, bouncing knees, and all sorts of small noises. These motions, defined as “fidgets,” can seem like a distraction from the learning environment and something that needs to be stopped. Continue reading “Fidgeting: The new key to success in the classroom?”

Bring Your Own Device—Will this trend stick or fade?

classroom technology

Ten or fifteen years ago, if a student had their phone out in class it would earn them a trip to detention, or a stern look from their teacher at the very least. Now, districts across the country are embracing “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) or “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT) policies. Technology is pricy, and BYOD or BYOT allows schools to stretch their budget by using the money elsewhere, while still implementing technology into their curriculum. Continue reading “Bring Your Own Device—Will this trend stick or fade?”