New Ideas for Using Project-Based Learning in the K–12 Classroom

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is more than the curriculum it"s built upon. The project skills students develop in class help them apply the knowledge they gain to the real-world challenges that lie ahead in college and at work.

"In-demand vocational skills will change. Jobs will get replaced. What people need to be taught is the ability to work in any environment and still be successful, to think and operate in different circumstances," says entrepreneur and father of three Raj Valli. Skills like flexibility, design thinking, collaboration, communication and problem solving never go out of fashion.

"We tend to work on projects with other people, and it"s not so much that your idea counts, but that collectively a particular idea can be brought to fruition," continues Valli, founder and CEO of Tabtor in Kendall Park, NJ. "The best way to solve problems is to bring in ideas from other people. Collaboration is where great ideas come from. As a group working together on a project, students can learn from each other and access different points of view. They learn that there are multiple valid perspectives and that the best results come from groups working effectively together. Together, they can come up with even better ideas and produce even better results. These skills will come in handy throughout their entire lives, regardless of what work they do, and will benefit their personal relationships as well."

Use these ideas to design better PBL assignments:

  1. Begin with the end in mind. The best-designed project-based lessons "actively involve students in a manner that allows them to discover and understand personal strategies for success, draw from current experiences, build upon them and move beyond the information provided," explains Gayle Jagel, founder and CEO of The Young Entrepreneurs Academy, headquartered in Rochester, NY. "It takes a 3-step approach to activate their prior knowledge, let them work on their own, then reflect on what they learned." There"s a misconception that in PBL teachers don"t have to teach, that kids just figure things out on their own. In reality, effective teachers take an active role in guiding kids through the successful completion of projects.
  1. Scaffold collaboration and communication. When creating projects, we often overlook the infrastructure necessary to facilitate good teamwork, the rules teams work by and the roles team members assume. This is not an easy thing to do because traditionally we haven"t needed rules and roles to get traditional schoolwork done. To solve this problem, some educators are adapting Scrum, a well-defined approach to teamwork with a 20-year history of success. The movement is led by Willy Wijnands a science teacher in Amsterdam and the founder of eduScrum, which applies successful project management practices used all over the world to project-based learning in school.
  1. Make it interdisciplinary. "Interdisciplinary problems and projects assist students to see that the disciplines in school are actually interconnected and help inform each other," notes Sue Ramlo, professor of general technology - physics at the University of Akron. "[This] work helps students see why liberal arts is important - why an electrical engineer, for instance, would need to take Human Relations and Western Civilization [or how] historical perspectives related to scientific developments can inform scientists, for instance. These aren"t just courses that stand alone - they could help inform their future career as well as making them a better-rounded citizen and person."
  1. Combine economics, research and history. Cover multiple content areas with one project. For example, Valli suggests "trading societies," which develops product and service ideas for the classroom community - and covers supply and demand, pricing, market research and the history of commerce. "Create a hypothetical local eco-system or village where everyone builds solutions that other groups need. They can conduct focus groups to figure out what other groups would like to see and pay for, and to think about what they can do to get other groups interested in their product."
  1. Create a problem-solving project. Take problem solving to the next level with an entire project based on innovation and improvement. "Teachers should ask lots of questions and encourage their students to question everything. What are things you wish you had a better way to do around your house? What are better options than drinking water in plastic bottles? Why does this matter? What makes something a ‘better" option? This approach makes sure kids can think critically and not take things for granted. By just asking one very simple question - what else? - it is amazing to see the kinds of free, creative thinking that arises."

PBL in action

PBL was at the core of Staples" Designed by Students program, which challenged youngsters to adapt existing products or design entirely new ones. Ten products were selected for inclusion in the Staples product line.

"Teaching collaboration and teamwork is hard, but a project like Designed By Students allows these skills to be incorporated into a student"s everyday learning," explains Don Buckley, founder of Tools for Schools and one of the program"s coordinators. "When a student's work is validated by professionals - designers, marketers, etc. - other than their teachers, it brings a real-world context into classroom learning. When a student sees their work realized in the store, it"s empowering, and allows them to think that anything is possible."

Better student engagement, higher relevance

PBL drives student engagement and creates relevant learning experiences for students.

"Projects get kids really excited," says Portland, OR–based author and mother of two Lisa Cohn. "You can do a project, and kids who are at different levels can all learn something different from the project, in their own style and at their own pace."

And they"ll hone those all-important communication skills. "Employers consistently include communication in their list of skills for employees regardless of the field," Ramlo notes. "PBL also helps develop critical thinking skills…helping students realize that not all information or knowledge available is quality information. They have to learn how to investigate sources of information and determine if they meet basic quality standards."

Jagel concurs. "Project-based learning kick-starts the thinking process and gives kids problem solving, communication and collaborative skills they can apply anywhere and in any discipline."

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