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What You Should Know About Project-Based Learning

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Aimee Hosler, an contributor and mother of two who writes about education and workplace news and trends. She holds a B.S. in journalism from California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo.

"Learn by doing." This is the type of experience that great teachers strive to facilitate for students. Many educators have heard about, or maybe even witnessed, how project-based learning (PBL) can engage a broader range of learners and promote workplace skills.

PBL is an instructional strategy in which students work cooperatively over time to create a product, presentation or performance. Two essential components are (1) an engaging and motivating question and (2) a product that meaningfully addresses that quproject-based learningestion.

Despite the buzz PBL has generated in academic journals and at teaching conferences, most modern classrooms still rely on teacher-led, paper-based learning. Teachers still recite facts and assign and grade homework. Group work tends to be a side project or a rare, but much-needed, break in routine. That may be changing.

Scholastic's Administr@tor Magazine notes that while there are no official statistics on PBL's increasing popularity, a rash of new PBL-based schools have emerged. Take the New Technology High School, a PBL-centered school that got its start in California in 1996. Today there are 40 New Tech schools nationwide, and each year more schools are launched or reformed with a PBL point of view. If it hasn't already, there is a reasonable chance that PBL will be coming to a classroom near you.

Not sure you're ready for it? Here's a quick primer on project-based learning in the modern classroom environment.

1. Project-based learning isn't a new fad.

Think PBL is just another pedagogical trend? Think again. The George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) says the foundations of the movement can be traced back to Confucius, Aristotle and Socrates, all of whom championed and modeled the merits of learning through experience. More recently, the roots of PBL as a practical classroom application can be traced to John Dewey and his 1897 book My Pedagogical Creed, which recommended learning by doing.

Physician-turned-child-development-expert Maria Montessori carried PBL into the 20th century, launching what has become an international educational movement based on the idea that children learn best through their environments, not rote memorization.

2. Project-based learning improves student outcomes.

Teachers often understand that while new classroom philosophies can excite on paper, the proof is in the metaphorical pudding. In other words, PBL must prove itself in the classroom before it can be adopted on a broader scale -- and it has. According to a PBL research review conducted by The Autodesk Foundation, studies have shown that project-based learning is linked to "significant" improvements in student test scores, attendance and classroom engagement. Intel reports that PBL has also been linked to improved higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, and speaks to a broader range of learners.

3. Project-based learning prepares students for the real world.

Sylvia Chard, professor emeritus of elementary education at the University of Alberta, told the GLEF that one of the major advantages of project work "is that it makes school more like real life." When students complete their education and head to the workplace, they will be expected to work with their colleagues, tackle problems, and organize and present their ideas. They must also be able to manage projects and complete them on time. Students can learn these skills early on in a PBL classroom, where lectures and one-off individual assignments take a back seat to collaboration and real-time problem solving.

4. Project-based learning promotes critical thinking, memory and creativity.

Perhaps one of the most notable benefits of PBL is its transformative effect on a student's thought processes. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, when students' primary objective is to overcome conflict, rather than avoid it entirely, skills like memory and reading comprehension soar. Likewise, Intel reports that "brain research underscores the value" of "meaningful problem-solving activities" as a means of developing natural inquiry, higher-level thinking and creativity.

5. Project-based learning is good for teachers, too.

Yes, PBL is good for students, but its benefits do not end there. According to the Autodesk Foundation report, teachers in PBL-centered classrooms report an improved school climate. They also say the model broadens the scope and degree of engagement in the classroom, which boosts their own confidence as teachers. Intel says PBL also enhances professionalism and collaboration among educators and improves student-teacher relationships.

Put Project-Based Learning to Work in your Classroom

According to Scholastic, one of the biggest barriers to broad implementation of project-based learning is fear. Some teachers and administrators are reluctant to scrap a teaching style they know to start over, especially when it means stepping into a new role as a facilitator rather than an expert in the classroom.

As Jane Krauss, coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, put it, "It's hard to teach in a way we were never taught." Fortunately, as enthusiasm for PBL grows, so does the number of resources available to teachers who want to put these principles to work in the classroom.

For those eager to learn more about PBL teaching techniques, check out GLEF, which maintains a list of PBL case studies, guidelines and ideas. Another great resource is Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century.


Related resources

Key Elements of Project-Based Learning
PBL: Free Web-Based Tools
Site Review: PBL for the 21st Century
Project-Based vs. Problem-Based Learning
Problem-Based Assignments Solve Real-World Issues


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