by Lee Hewes
Merrylands East Public School, Sydney, NSW, Australia
You may have read a couple of earlier posts by the Buck Institute entitled, “Why We Changed Our Model of the 8 Essential Elements of PBL” and ‘The Perils of PBL’s Popularity.” If you haven’t, I encourage you to read them here and here. In both articles, the authors proclaim their concern over the potential for Project Based Learning to be confused with less rigorous, hands-on pedagogies or class “projects”.
Such approaches, while they may be more engaging and interesting than traditional approaches, lack the planning, preparation and depth that are required of true Project Based Learning, as well as some of the Essential Project Design Elements that are clearly outlined in the older and most recent models of Project Based Learning developed by the BIE.
Here in Australia, Project Based Learning is also increasing in popularity and we too are faced with the same perils that concern the authors of the aforementioned articles. In what I would call the “dilution” of PBL, I have seen many educators claim to be engaging in project-based practices, when in fact they are actually just providing their students an opportunity to engage in fun activities (or even worse, not even fun, and overly teacher directed under the guise of a driving question). These may last for an extended period of time, say, several lessons, in relation to a particular topic, without going into much depth of inquiry, having their students solve any significant problem, or prepare any product for an authentic audience outside of their classroom or school. It is important that we remain clear on what is true Project Based Learning, and what is simply a class “project” or some other form of activity or “task completion based learning.”
Over the years since 2010, and through much trial and error, my wife Bianca and I have developed a model which, while ensuring we include all of the BIE’s essential project design elements into every project, breaks down the Project Based Learning process into what we call the three cycles of learning: Discover, Create, Share. By following this process, in conjunction with BIE’s Essential Project Design Elements we can be sure that Project Based Learning does not become diluted, and remains the highly effective, engaging and excellent future focused pedagogy we know it to be.
This is the sustained inquiry that forms the basis of what students will need to learn throughout the course of the project, and is always centered around some form of challenging problem or question. The key knowledge, understanding and skills that students learn throughout a project go beyond a strict adherence to syllabus documents and teacher direction, as students learn to work in teams and collaborate to solve problems that arise along the way and to inquire into the questions they’re faced with. This goes beyond a series of teacher-planned activities in which students complete tasks under the direction of the teacher; there are often times when students and teachers alike aren’t aware of which problems will pop up and must work together to solve them. The teacher acts more as a project manager who works to help each group, and not as a task distributor at the front of the classroom.
In true Project Based Learning, students are required to make some form of public product for an authentic audience. This adds a sense of purpose and authenticity, which is vital to PBL. These products vary from project to project, and may range from anything including artworks and artifacts through to gardens, books, news articles, websites and videos. The range of products is potentially limitless, and what’s crucial is that students are given voice and choice over what they make, and with teacher and group assistance, they are constantly revising, critiquing and reflecting on how to make their products the best they can be.
It is imperative that students are aware that they have an audience to share their products with, and they’re not just making a diorama to be placed at the back of the classroom. There is often also a public display of their works in some form of exhibition or a visit from their audience, who may also be an expert in their field or an important local figure. This authenticity drives a sense of importance to the project for students and increases engagement. It also provides students with a real world purpose for the work they are doing and an opportunity to take their learning outside of the walls of their classroom.
Some of our previous audiences have included classes and educators from other schools, both locally, interstate and internationally, and also authors, academics, TV celebrities, local businesses and government institutions. A recent project conducted at our school has involved grade 3 and 4 students presenting their work to a local gelato company. As a result, the students have been invited to visit their factory to see gelato making in process and taste some creations based upon student designs.
At the end of each project it’s always powerful to stop and reflect on the knowledge, understanding and skills we have learned along the way. My year 4 class recently overwhelmed me as they reflected on all of the technological and presentation skills they’d learned throughout our most recent project.
So what have we learned here? I’d like to think that we’ve learned that with the rise in popularity of Project Based Learning, it’s important that we maintain its rigour and we are careful not to dilute it. I’d like to think we’ve learned that by adhering to the essential project design elements and keeping the three “cycles of learning” in mind we can ensure that we provide gold standard Project Based Learning experiences for our students.
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