Project Based Learning: It's Worth Your Time

By Dulcy Dawson

The classroom I’m in looks a bit different than the typical High School scene.

Not all of the students are sitting at tables or desks. There are five students sitting on the floor with a chromebook and some butcher paper with the beginnings of a long timeline stretched across it. Sitting on some bean bags in another corner are three students creating what looks to be a set of tiny cars out of clay that are to represent the industrial revolution. Some students are sitting at the tables but seem to be engaged in a healthy discussion, excitedly talking and writing their “plan” on a form. Permeating the room is the low buzz of organized research and collaborative design team work. The teacher in this U.S. History class is allowing the students to research and then create a model representation of the The Age of the Automobile.

This is a two week mini project that will connect with the year long timeline project that incorporates language arts, history, and math standards. Instead of the history teacher simply giving the students two weeks of copious notes on the overhead, she is teaching her students to be active learners as participants in historical research. History classes do not have to be boring lists of names and places and dates. Interactive, deep learning does not have to be relegated to the confines of the AP or early college courses.

Integrating Project Based Learning (PBL) into classroom curriculum has been described as scary, messy, expensive, and simply too difficult. Many educators are intimidated by the lack of structure and the preparation time that it takes to plan a good project for a couple of weeks or even a semester. For many of us, our controlled lessons and unit plans, with their defined protocols, inputs, activities, and outcomes, feel safe.

These concerns can be put to rest with a little energy, some innovation, and a bit of time invested in the process of planning PBL.

One strategy is to incorporate the community and parents in the process. PBL does not have to be an expensive endeavor. Educators are masters at being resourceful. Use what is available and think outside the box. Many times students and parents are willing to put some skin in the game as well. Sending out a short list of supplies or even asking colleagues for extra random items from home can help. Local businesses are more than happy to donate materials and can often be a great resource for your classroom. For example, many farm stores are willing to donate in order to help schools create gardens, and local hardware stores have been known to pitch in supplies as well.

Planning is key. Do not try to plan a cool project the night before introducing it to students. It takes some early planning in order to be sure it makes sense to the students. One great tool is the PBL Checklist along with many other great tools that can be found on the Buck Institute website. It is true that PBL is front loaded with planning and yes, it takes some flexibility and willingness to make mistakes along the way but all this is worth it in the end. As a teacher who has been implementing PBL for over 4 years, I have recognized the benefits of PBL as it changes the teaching role from a director of the classroom to a facilitator and life long learner. The teacher gets to watch the students learn and grow right before their eyes daily instead of waiting for a test to assess the learning.

The reward of all the hard work is more often than not positively reflected by the students. When asked what was the most important lesson learned during high school, Taisa from West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a PBL high school in West Hawaii, stated, “My favorite project was my Spanish Immersion project. Not only did I get to learn Spanish and develop a curriculum for other students, I loved what I was learning, if anything it felt like I was pursuing a passion. I had control on all the aspects including the other students. That in itself taught me many valuable lessons and revealed traits I never knew I had. Project based learning and student choice allowed me to learn in the most effective way for me.”

Over the years, many students return to express their gratefulness at having had numerous, rich project experiences where they were able to work on real world problems and use their voices for something they felt passionate about. PBL gives students a chance to use their school time as a vehicle for learning about the world from their perspective. Teachers and students have the opportunity to learn together and that causes a huge shift in the overall classroom experience. PBL can be done without fear and teachers and students can thrive together.

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Dulcy Dawson is a High School Teacher at West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a project based public charter school on Hawaii Island. She loves learning alongside her students and continues to be a life long learner. When not with her students, you will find Dulcy with her husband and kids or on a coffee date with a friend.