Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Understanding Project Based Learning

In February, I traveled to Concord, North Carolina to the Cannon School and led a Project Based Learning workshop for the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS). I absolutely love helping teachers gain an understanding of the possibilities of updating current instructional practices to motivate children to want to learn.  
I like the definition of Project Based Learning (PBL) by Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss. They state, “In project-based learning, students gain important knowledge, skills, and dispositions by investigating open-ended questions to “make meaning” that they transmit in purposeful ways.”  (Krauss & Boss, 2013)

This instructional strategy is not new to educators.  The well-respected education and social reformer John Dewey suggested that treating students as receptacles of knowledge left true intellectual engagement to chance.  In 1916, in Democracy and Education, he said, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” University medical faculty started using Problem Based Learning in the 1950s as they questioned the effectiveness of massive memorization of science facts via lectures followed by exhausting clinicals. This approach that challenges students to learn through engagement in a real world problem continues in medical schools today and was the forerunner of today’s Project Based Learning.

Buck’s Institute at provides a wonderful framework to get us started with this type of lesson design. PBL starts with significant content and key concepts in academic disciplines.  Students are challenged to solve an open-ended, driving question and in order to do so they must use higher-order thinking and problem solving skills to create something new. They also must collaborate and communicate with others to work as a team. In-depth inquiry is an important component.  Students research, read, write and expresses themselves in a variety of ways. Since PBL begins with a meaningful, relevant question to solve it provides context and a reason to learn. Students will have opportunities to express themselves in their own voice and make responsible choices as part of the experience. A student learns to give and receive feedback through ongoing revision and reflection opportunities and present their created products or solution to a public audience which increases the students’ motivation and adds authenticity.

An example of PBL question might be, “how can we, as structural engineers, design and test bridge models for a walkway over Lakeview creek?” Traditionally, a teacher might lecture and then quiz students on the three types of primary bridges and the basic principles of engineering for each type in a science class.

Successful adults have learned to manage themselves, set goals, direct their time and make decisions. When students have opportunities to experience PBL they can also learn to develop the executive function skills needed in today’s world. I believe that children must have the opportunity to make decisions in order to learn to make decisions.  In addition, to stimulate the curiosity of children and to engage them as thinkers and learners can become a foundation for the development of creative innovators.

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