I have always been somewhat of a weird learner. To start, as a student I am a big fan of lectures. While others may have a tendency to be lulled to sleep by a professor’s monotonous voice, or have trouble resisting the temptation to doodle owls (okay, maybe I am a little guilty on this one) instead of stay on task I have never had an issue. On the contrary, I have thrived in this type of environment. In this sense, I am very much an auditory learner. In addition, I also consider myself a visual learner. I love, love, love notes and written text. Give me a book and a pad of paper and I guarantee I will be able to get the concept down eventually. The way I learn is normal to me because it is a part of who I am. It is only when I view these attributes of mine in relation to the rest of the educational world that they become strange, because classrooms everywhere are becoming more and more hands-on.
This week I took the time to research some different approaches to learning (project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, educational maker movement, personalized learning, experiential learning, problem-based learning) and I realized as I was going through that they are all connected by a hands-on methodology. Though the learning might not look the same, in essence students tackle questions, problems, and challenges in an applied manner. This was interesting to me because it is so unlike my own approaches. It has become apparent that as a teacher I am going to have to get out of my comfort zone and provide students with the type of learning I am so at ends with.
The best part? I’m actually excited about it! Not only will it help make learning fun for my students, but it will help me grow in my own educational journey. Each of these learning approaches gave me food for thought on how I might best succeed in both of those endeavors, but the concept that really struck a chord with me was project-based learning.
What is project-based learning?
As this website puts it, “If traditional education is classical, PBL is jazz.” It is an approach to learning that promotes group work to solve complex questions and problems that can be applied in real life. Instead of forcing rote memorization for a test, project-based learning provides students with tools to dig in deep and work to gain knowledge themselves. After a time of immersion with the questions and problems, students manifest their knowledge in a physical product that is then somehow presented to the target audience, be it the class or the public or someone in between. Project-based learning completely flips the idea of lectures, homework, and tests on its head and instead strives to really get students involved in their own education. As the video below from this organization demonstrates, the critical thinking, collaboration, and communication that project-based learning embodies can turn all students into learning rock stars.
How is project-based learning implemented?
At first glance, project-based learning might seem a little daunting, especially when it comes to implementing it in your own classroom. However, with baby steps it can be utilized by any teacher with relative ease and much excitement. This article is succinct, but it does a great job encouraging teachers to get their feet wet and then go for project-based learning. After coming up with a question to focus on and getting students into groups, if you start small, plan ahead, and stay on task you should have a rewarding experience. After all, it should be about the journey rather than the product. On her blog, Bianca Hewes provides a great example of starting up project-based learning with her 10th grade English students. Check it out!
What does a project-based learning classroom look like?
As with any classroom, they are all going to be different whether they use project-based learning or not. That being said, according to this website there are a few guidelines to follow that might help maximize project-based learning in the classroom space. The first concept is layout. In the vast majority of classrooms, student desks sit in rows facing the front of the classroom. This is fine for lecturing, but when the goal is getting students to work together there needs to be desk groupings so that students are instead facing one another. One must also consider how students will access information. Be it through technology, books, or one another the classroom needs to have available the necessary tools to let students acquire knowledge in ways that they see fit. This gets tricky in schools with low budgets, but it is possible to turn nearly anything into a usable resource when one thinks outside of the box. Next it is important to use technology with purpose. Technology is growing at such an exponential rate in our society that it is hard to not go overboard in using it. Yes, it is a wonderful tool. Students need practice to become digitally literate. However, there is a time and a place. Use technology to truly add value to the project… not just to say you are using it. Finally, don’t be afraid to be involved in their learning process. Project-based learning is naturally student led, but teachers need to view themselves as the most powerful resource as all. They can create questions, guide discussion, lend a hand with research, and otherwise lend ideas to the students. It is all about balance. A post by Mr. Paul Barnwell over at The Center for Teaching Quality gives a realistic (as he calls it “warts and all”) view of project-based learning in the classroom. If you are even slightly interested in implementing this learning approach, go give it a read; it might not be perfect, but he will encourage you to get it done.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of project-based learning?
As with anything in life, project-based learning comes with both advantages and disadvantages. This website lays out the benefits and risks of project-based learning in list format with sections for students, instructors, and institutions. I agree with a lot of what they have written, but I will hit on what I feel are the most important points. In my opinion, the biggest advantage is that it strives to connect classroom learning to the real world. I’ve heard it many a time from others and have even thought it myself, but one of the biggest struggles students face in education is feeling as though they are learning something that is not relevant to the “real” world. By getting to create their own project that can take classroom subject matter and apply it to the real world, students feel as though their education is worthwhile and that is important. On the flip side, I think the biggest disadvantage of project based-learning is the amount of time it takes to make it truly effective. At any grade level, students are typically taking five or more total classes. It is stressful enough as is to stay on top of normal homework, but when an intensive research project is thrown in it might have an adverse affect on student learning. This makes student autonomy even more crucial, because they will be more likely to rise to the challenge if it is something they are emotionally invested in. That being said it is far from impossible. When done correctly, project-based learning can have a great impact upon any classroom.
Finally, would I use project-based learning approach in my own classroom?
Absolutely! As a future English teacher, there is nearly an endless amount of applications for project based learning. Most students can see the merit in learning how to read or write, but it is often literature that makes students groan and drag their feet. As I learned more about project-based learning, the first idea that popped into my head is to someday use it during a Shakespeare unit. Perhaps students could research the affect reading and analyzing older English has on the brain. Or I could even let them create a project that argues for or against teaching Shakespeare in modern high school classrooms. Man, I’m looking forward to the possibilities! During my research I found some teachers who are implementing project-based learning in their classrooms right now. Shaelynn Farnsworth tweets project-based learning resources that teachers of all levels can find useful, and Kevin Armstrong shares how his own fourth grade students use project-based learning all the time. In addition, I also found an AMAZING blog post that provides many great ideas for project-based learning in a 21st century English classroom. I have already bookmarked this post and plan to return to it for ideas in the near future. These are the people who are setting examples right now, paving the way for myself and other aspiring teachers to implement project-based learning when our time comes. All in all, I am glad education is moving towards a more hands-on learning approach like with project-based learning. I might be the odd one out among my future students, but as long as I am providing the best education possible for them I am completely okay with it. Besides, I learned a long time ago how to roll with the crowd while still maintaining my own individuality. Even in learning being normal is overrated. 😀