One of the many reasons that I am so passionate about project-based learning is that it affords students opportunities to do things that they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do in through a more traditional model of instruction.
Normally, many of the students that I work with have very similar educational experiences in their classes. They walk in and take their assigned seats. There is generally some sort of teacher-led activity or a lecture that goes over new material and serves to build knowledge. They apply it with a little bit of independent practice where, if they are lucky, they get a minute or two of the teacher’s time to clarify challenges they are facing. Then they leave with an amount of homework that by itself wouldn’t be too bad but when they compile all of the other homework they have is absurd.
Some teachers that I work with take issue with this description of a typical day at a high school or middle school, but if I get the opportunity to talk to the parents or the students they agree that the preceding description is very accurate.
The point of this is not to demonize canned lessons as much as it is to provide an example where we can demonstrate how small changes can improve the quality of a learning experience. Where are the opportunities for students to work in pairs or groups? Where are the opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of knowledge by applying it to a real-world challenge? Where are the opportunities for students to work on skills not necessarily related to the content, such as communication, collaboration, or critical thinking?
More to the point, in a structure like the one that I have described there are few opportunities for a student to grow through struggle, acceptable amount of struggle, or for them to feel confident in what they are learning and their ability to use it. In short, the two things that I see lacking in most classroom structures is the ability for students to stretch themselves intellectually and to confidently strut around within the subject area.
This idea of stretch and stretch is one that I developed during the winter while watching Saturday Night Fever. If you remember the beginning of the movie, Travolta’s character is walking around the neighborhood oozing confidence, even while buying paint and eating pizza. It occurred to me that I wanted students to feel the exact same way when they presented their learning to an outside audience. To do so, we want to create opportunities for our students to stretch and strut within our lessons. Here is a little bit more detail about what I mean by each one.
What? To gain new knowledge and skills through rigorous, collaborative, teacher facilitated experiences. Students engage in struggle throughout a project with teacher ensuring that it stays within the zone of proximal development.
How? Independent research, discussion structures, feedback protocols, student centered learning activities, processes that encourage reflection on process, check-in’s, choice-based learning activities.
What? Allowing students to demonstrate their understanding by applying it to real world problems and sharing their new knowledge and skills with public audiences.
How? Include applying knowledge to real world problems in their community, opportunities for peer protocol reviews, interacting with outside experts, presenting their findings to people other than their classmates, receiving critique or probing questions from those with more knowledge, helping them identify things they can teach others.
These two aspects of classroom PBL are particularly important for adolescents as they are generally told over and over again by adults and society that they are not powerful and that they do not have any place to serve as experts. Expertise is reserved for teachers and adults, not teens or preteens. Yet with project-based learning, they can take what they are learning and provide it to people and other usable forms. No longer do children have to feel as though society dry freezes them until the age of 18 when they graduate high school to feel impactful in their world or community.