Sunday, September 8, 2013

Worms, Butterflies and Buildings Make Project-Based Learning Successful

Teachers put a great deal of effort into creating engaging, high-quality lessons. We brainstorm, create, collaborate, borrow, steal and imagine lessons that might increase student engagement while meeting the curriculum standards required by our state and district. Project-based learning (PBL) is one of the many methods being adopted by teachers to improve learning and prepare students for standardized tests, as well as college and careers. 

I teach an elective science course for on-level seniors titled Scientific Research and Design. (A fancy title for Physics is Fun!) The objectives of this course boil down to design, perform and report on experiments with the focus on problem solving skills. Over the last 3 years I have flipped the class and slowly moved toward PBL without exactly knowing how to get there or what it really is. I have eliminated paper test with problem sets and incorporated projects. Rubrics, written reflection and presentations form most of the course assessment. Students work collaboratively to solve problems, create solutions and meet challenges. While students have said they have learned more in this class than others, I feel that learning opportunities are being missed due to my lack of knowledge. Examining schools that have used PBL successfully should help me improve my course.

Many classrooms have implemented PBL successfully. Analyzing successful examples from three different schools will provide an idea of what it takes to create better learning experiences. An elementary science magnet with low-income students uses PBL extensively to teach all subjects. More Fun Than a Barrel of Worms (Curtis, ”More Fun”, 2001) provides many examples of learning by students at Newsome Park Elementary School in Newport News Virginia through PBL. Elementary students at Rockledge Elementary School in Bowie, Maryland study migration patterns in their project March of the Monarchs  (Curtis, “March of the Monarchs”, 2002).  High school students attending Mountlake Terrace High School in Mountlake Terrace, Washington show off their learning through an end of the year project, Geometry Students Angle Into Architecture (Armstrong, 2002). Each of the examples was different in style and topic but had similar elements that made them successful. 

Despite the different schools, ages and courses there were similarities in the goals and design of the projects. Simply assigning a project does not meet the curriculum objectives of a course. Each project must be carefully designed by the teacher to insure the students are given the opportunity to learn the necessary skills and concepts. The teacher must also ensure the information that will be needed by the students is available at the appropriate level. Additionally, the project must fit into the curriculum and course timeline and not be just an element that is added on as something fun. The framework for the projects was similar. Each of the projects started with a big idea, like animal life cycles, migration, or architecture, and contains elements that connect to real-world applications and crosses curriculum. Students have choice in research and documentation of their progress. Students have technology available as a tool for learning and creativity. The final products presentations are shared with people outside the school as well as peers within the school. Throughout the projects students collaborate, ask questions and seek answers using the knowledge from many courses not just the class with the project assignment. Teachers have many opportunities for assessment with crafted questions and rubrics for product and teamwork evaluation. Experts in the field and community members are included as resource and evaluators.  At Newsome Park community volunteers come in and present information to the students (Curtis, ”More Fun”, 2001). The students in Bowie participate an Annenberg Foundation program tracking migrations and providing scientists with data (Curtis, “March of the Monarchs”, 2002). Geometry students work with professional architects as mentors and evaluators throughout their assignment (Armstrong, 2002). In each of the projects the students have the opportunity to stretch beyond the course into the real-world.

In each of the PBL courses the teacher is more than effectively planning and designing lessons.  The teacher becomes a facilitator and steps back to let the students talk, struggle and work together in the manner they choose, only intervening when frustration is sensed or redirection is needed. Additionally, the teachers are comfortable giving up the role of sage and allow students to seek other sources of information. By posing carefully crafted questions the teachers help the student begin to sort through the things they already know and the new knowledge they need to obtain. Also, the teachers help student find the connections between the project, other courses and real-world experiences. At the conclusion of the different projects the teacher also shared the assessment role with students, community members and experts. In each of the examples the teacher guides the students and allows them the freedom to arrive at solutions in their own way. 

With the teacher role changed to a mentor or facilitator and the freedom of choice, the students in PBL classrooms are more responsible for their own learning. They create the questions, the research path, and the solution or product. They must use their creativity and skill to find answers, not just wait for the information to be delivered. Students also have to learn how to effectively work in a group, sharing the load and allowing opinions and ideas other than their own. This change in roles is an adjustment.  Since the projects are based on student interests, ideas and choices the students will make the switch. 

Putting the learning in the hands of the students creates an environment of engagement and deeper learning. Working in well-defined teams ensures that each student has a role in arriving at the solution. By making the product public and meaningful, the students are given the extra incentive to do the best work they can. And in the case of the students at Newsome Park Elementary the students really want to be at school (Curtis, ”More Fun”, 2001). Applying knowledge learned in multiple courses to real life problems shows true learning and gives the students an opportunity to deepen their understanding in a meaningful way. 

Looking at the three example schools gives a framework for success with PBL. I found some of the pieces missing in the assignments given in my course. By comparing the lessons from the three schools to my lessons I can improve the learning opportunities provided to students. Being honest and evaluating both to find what will work best for my students will make the whole experience better. Eventually, students will become expert learners and realize the lessons go beyond one class period, one unit or even one course and connect to real life.   

Curtis, D., (2001, October). More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?! Edutopia, Retrieved September 2, 2013, from
Curtis, D., (2002, June). March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies' Migration. Edutopia, Retrieved September 2, 2013, from
Armstrong, S. (2002, February). Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning. Edutopia, Retrieved September 2, 2013, from