By Judi Fusco
Project Based Learning (PBL) is an active, inquiry-based method that helps students construct their own understanding. PBL can be used in any subject area. Content and learning goals should be central in the work, and projects should have students demonstrate their learning as they create a artifact. PBL is a great approach in classrooms when it’s done right. Teachers often have a lot of questions about it, and sometimes there are misconceptions. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Cassandra Kelley and Kristin van Gompel about Project Based Learning. Both are former elementary teachers and now doctoral students pursuing their Ed.D.s in the Pepperdine EDLT program. (The picture shows them at the United States Department of Education during one of the doctoral program trips. Cassandra is on the left and Kristin is on the right.) In addition, Cassandra Kelley is a member of the faculty in the CalStateTEACH Teacher Preparation Program. Kristin van Gompel works at an educational technology company and is also faculty at CSUEB in the Teacher Preparation Program. In this post, Kristin and Cassandra discuss an article by Krajcik and Blumenfeld (2006). The article outlines 5 design features for PBL learning environments that they see as key in the process to help with deeper student learning.
The first design feature is:
1. There should be a challenge in the form of a driving question or a problem to be solved. The problem should be authentic and meaningful to the students and created by the students, if possible.
Sometimes teachers are unaware of the importance of students determining what problem they are going to solve, so the teacher merely assigns a project to the student. For example, a teacher may believe that assigning fourth grade students to build a Mission (something often done in California History projects for 4th grade) would be PBL assignment. However, if there isn't an initial driving question or problem, these assignments become an exercise in just building. Students can even buy a kit to create a great Mission. Buying a kit and assembling it may teach something, but if the initial learning goals were to help students learn and think critically about history, just building a mission is not going to help students learn what was intended. In addition, the problem isn’t authentic; most students know that building a mission isn’t something that is typically done in the real world, especially if they go get a kit.
It can be difficult to get younger students to come up with an authentic driving question that will help with the learning goals, but teachers can help with this by providing background, and finding out what the students are curious about and what’s important to them. Existing PBL lessons often have an introductory section that introduces the topic and helps the students get interested in the topic of study; existing lessons also often provide driving questions.
After the students have their driving questions:
2. Students should explore their questions by participating in authentic inquiry and engage in collaboration to problem solve.
This exploration is important because it helps the driving question or problem become more deeply understood. For example, in the case of a Mission project, students might consider questions like: How can we choose a good location and design for a new California mission? What should we consider? Why do we see differences in the Missions that were built in the past? (For more on a PBL Mission project see PBLU about creating a 22nd Mission.) As students spend time considering these questions together, they consider alternatives, discuss, and debate to more fully build an understanding of issues. A teacher may need to help students learn to productively discuss and collaborate with each other. Collaborative group work is not something that students just “know how to do.” Teachers can help make collaborative time more successful by assigning roles for the students to take in their groups, giving expectations for what kinds of interactions are expected, giving suggestions on how to talk when there is disagreement, and providing students with an agenda or an outline where they can make an agenda for their work time so they can stay focused and productive. We’ll discuss collaboration more in a future post.
As students begin to work on the project, another element that should be included is:
3. Students, teachers, and others should work together to discover the answer.
Having voices other than students in the project can provide expertise and lead to more discoveries, but other voices shouldn’t dominate the discussion. Besides the teacher, interested others could be a parent, a volunteer, an expert, or an older student. If the teacher can find an expert from the community, they can come into the classroom in person or through online video conferencing tools to talk or be part of the process. (Sometimes, an expert isn’t easily found or can’t make it to the classroom; in this case, previously recorded videos are very helpful to bring in expert perspectives. Students won’t be able to discuss with the expert but hopefully they can learn and then discuss with each other.) Older students in the school who have done the project before can be very helpful. (We’ve had good experience with slightly older students helping younger ones learn. )
When working in groups with others, students have the opportunity to learn more about problem solving and watch others (classmates, parents, experts, or older near peers) engage in the process of developing the project. Teachers and others shouldn’t try to give a solution, but the groups should work together to figure it out. Teachers, especially, shouldn’t have all the answers. (When teachers give solutions, students follow the steps given, like a recipe, and then do not construct their own understanding.)
Also, in the process,
4. Students and others should use learning technologies that help students do things they can’t normally do and learn new things.
For the Mission example, teachers may ask the students to do more research on the web to understand historical conditions. Students could potentially visit the missions through Virtual Reality or YouTube videos, and explore different topics based on the learning goal. (The teacher might also give them a worksheet or other tool that helps scaffold the research process or improve their questions in the process.) Teachers who use Minecraft could have students create buildings in Minecraft if it makes sense for the learning goals. If students are designing missions based on what they have learned, they could begin by creating the floor plans of a mission and later consider 3D printing or adding interactive coding elements within a virtual mission. Designing in 3D would incorporate a mathematical challenge; this is one way that STEM topics could be included in the project, if appropriate. (Of course, if building is important in the process and 3D printing isn’t available, a traditional paper or cardboard model to address the driving question(s) is a fine option.) While all of this could be fun for the students, care should be taken to ensure that the technology added to the project helps students achieve their learning goals. When PBL is incorporated across the curriculum, there are opportunities for multiple learning goals across the different subjects and this often leads to different opportunities for including technology.
And this leads to the 5th element,
5. Students should create an artifact or “project” that addresses the original driving questions and allows them to share an artifact demonstrating what they learned.
The creation of a shared artifact often motivates students. However, sometimes, it seems like we (as educators) are too focused on the product. One warning sign that you may not be doing PBL is if you ask every student to create an identical project. Building a mission, even if students build different missions, probably isn’t sufficient if you want students to demonstrate their learning through the project. It is important to let students create, but what they create should not be dictated. Of course, for practical reasons, a teacher could give parameters for the project with each student doing something like a poster, video, or a brochure. It would be up to each student or group to decide what is included based on what answers their driving question and demonstrates their learning. The artifact doesn’t need to be elaborate if it helps the students answer their driving questions.
In PBL, we need students leading the work to develop driving questions, collaborate, and demonstrate their learning in their projects. Teachers need to facilitate the process, to build in time for iteration, to think about what questions or challenges could excite our students, and make plans using the key elements of PBL so that the project helps the student reach the learning goals. We want the product of the project to be a representation of the learning goals rather than the main event where students are following a set of steps to create something. As the production phase of the project ends, the meaningful artifacts or findings from the project could be presented to a wider public community through a blog, website, local newspaper, YouTube, etc., providing more purpose to the research and final projects.
These five elements are very important in PBL. What’s not discussed above is how a teacher learns how to do effective implementation of PBL to enhance learning. Cassandra Kelley works with new teachers in the CalStateTEACH program. The curriculum in this program requires students to create their own PBL unit following the model provided from the Buck Institute for Education website. Using this curriculum, new teachers are actually engaged in PBL themselves, as they create example PBL lessons to implement in their clinical experiences (and ideally for later use in their own future classrooms). In the process, the candidates form collaborative teams in order to develop an authentic driving question, teaching/learning guide, calendar, assessment map, and design rubric. It’s great when the placement classrooms for new teachers are in PBL schools or in schools with a focus on PBL in their curriculum, or the teacher is working with a mentor teacher who understands and uses PBL effectively. They can learn so much more. When the new teacher is placed in a class with a mentor teacher who doesn’t know PBL, it can be difficult; we’ll share more in another future post.
Krajcik, J.S., & Blumenfeld, P. (2006). Project-Based Learning. In R.K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (317-333). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
You can download the chapter listed; please note, it will download as soon as the link is clicked.
Here are some resources we find helpful in guiding thinking about PBL. http://www.bie.org/object/document/project_based_teaching_rubric
Leave a comment with a question or your favorite PBL resource.
Thanks to Pati Ruiz, Cynthia D'Angelo, and Patti Schank for their thinking on this post.