Adults live in a world of projects, and with the myriad problems that accompany both work and life, people often collaborate in various social contexts to get things sorted out. This system of cooperation and investigation of strategies and resolutions is the fundamental reasoning behind the movement of project-based learning, which is closely tied to the concepts of 21st-century skills, the center of any competitive curriculum.
At its core, project-based learning aims to give students a more active, hands-on approach to learning, touching on real-life skills that students can develop in school and then carry out as adults. Some criteria for successful projects include:
- A challenge offered to a small group (10 or fewer)
- A limited time frame with which to complete all components (data collection, testing, drafting, and delivery of findings)
- Requiring a broad range of life skills applicable to various contexts
- Culminates with a public component
3 Meaningful Characteristics of Project-Based Learning
Whether you’re looking for important concepts of project-based learning or you’re wondering if a particular endeavor makes the cut, here are three central components that translate into deeper learning:
1. We need a multidisciplinary approach. Thorough projects engage students in inquiry, solution-building, and data or product construction. This means that as students work through the challenge presented, they will often be using content knowledge and skills while combining academic subjects to get the project done.
2. Real-world problem, real-world application. Because project-based learning uses real problems, students are applying knowledge and skills, not simply recalling or recognizing them. The inquiry process that students follow allows them deeper learning of the content as it’s applied to authentic, actual-world issues.
3. Teacher takes a backseat. Think less top-down leader and more project manager. Students really get a chance to work independently through this process, and the teacher provides support only when needed. Students have an opportunity, just as in real-life situations, to discuss and cooperatively make decisions, execute, and deliver their solutions. The development of these crucial skills is highly necessary in current workplace contexts!
Current trends in curriculum design have moved from traditional instruction with its emphasis on rote learning to performance tasks, allowing students to demonstrate their learning through the application of skill, knowledge, and content. Project-based learning covers all these bases, with students gaining agency to explore challenges and discover or create solutions. And giving kids the steering wheel in this sense increases their interests and often translates to further engagement and a heightened sense of ownership. It seems that if students are presented with a well-planned project in terms of tools provided and time frames carefully mapped out, they come away from the experience with many gains.
So what would that well-planned project look like? There are some pitfalls teachers should steer clear of, as Jennifer Gonzalez discusses in her excellent article “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” In her article, Gonzalez mentions an overarching concept of keeping kids busy. This does not lead anywhere intellectually, lacks focus on important concepts, and usually reflects little (if any) measurable evidence of learning. Lucky for us, she lays out some ground rules for ensuring projects that are largely a waste of time. To sum up, these are:
1. Excessive coloring or crafting.
2. Excessive time on technical features such as sound effects or aesthetic design.
3. Low-level thinking in which content is mainly restated and is not learned or engaged with meaningfully.
4. Those projects based largely on “creativity.”
5. Word searches that fall outside of foreign language classes.
To these rules, I would also add careful consideration of the time needed to complete the project from start to finish. If you and your students cannot commit to the entirety of the process to see it through, it may fall short of meeting the goals of a successful project, and students may not reap any of the benefits project-based learning is designed to bring to the class.
Finally, there are some very creative and very inspiring examples of project-based learning available online, such as students answering the question of how we could live on Mars to a classroom’s experience of caring for a chicken coop. With all the potential benefits that projects can bring to students, teachers have really been proactive in working out designs and activities that meet these criteria and get the most “bang” for class hours spent. In this way, educators are helping make experiences that are unforgettable and encompass a whole lot of learning.