Eduporium Weekly | An Update on Achieving Meaningful PBL

  • Posted on: February 10, 2018 - 5:54am
  • By: alarmand

We’re pretty adamant that we think active learning is the way to go in 21st century education. When kids are sitting back, being spoken to, and completely passive about the content they’re absorbing in the classroom, how does that benefit them? Especially in today’s complex world, the answer is that it really doesn’t. They need active experiences and hands-on problem solving in order to become Future Ready. They need project-based learning and they need it to be of high quality.


PBL Helps Close the Skills Gap


The question isn’t so much ‘what do students need?’ It’s more of ‘how can teachers give them these enriching, project-based learning experiences?’ They need to start by really figuring out what they want their students to get out of each school day and each school year. Ultimately, we hope they conclude that students should be mastering certain STEM skills that will help them succeed in the 21st century workforce. As of now, the skills gap in STEM industries is much too prevalent, largely because graduates who are looking for employment did not have enough project-based learning experiences while they were in school. Whether a student believes they are going to go on to major in something STEM-related or not, PBL helps them develop a number of other relevant skills.


The workforce is largely technical these days, which results in employers seeking people who can provide help with coding projects, engineering, and things like that. There is also an incredible emphasis on some of the softer skills as well, like communication, creativity, collaboration, and problem solving. Whether the PBL students experience includes a lot of technology or not, it should include opportunities for them to work on developing these four skills. When learning is project-based, it obviously involves a physical element and an interactive element. To ensure great PBL that mirrors the real world, it’s as simple as making sure these components are present from the start. What happens after that is also crucial, but could be for not if the importance of hands-on learning is not stressed to students.


To make PBL as meaningful as possible, educators should try to keep it student-centered and dynamic. When kids are in charge of their projects and working together to find creative solutions, more often than not, they’re discovering deeper knowledge than they would attain from traditional learning. The element of active exploration is key and so too is the correlation they see between projects done during their youth and those done in the real world. Teachers should do their best to create challenges that give their students a glimpse into the problems STEM employees try to solve every day. That’s what will benefit them the most. We’ll always advocate for project-based learning, especially compared to passive learning, and, as it continues to improve the quality of STEM education, PBL is poised to provide impact.


PBL is Ineffective if it’s Inaccessible


A lot of teachers believe that project-based learning is something that’s very beneficial to the futures of students. It cannot benefit them, however, if they never have the opportunity to try it. Like any education initiative, the more thoroughly PBL is planned out, the more effective it will be. And, since every student should feel comfortable with whatever style of learning they’re engaged it, planning to make PBL as accessible as possible is very important. It should provide every student with specific learning outcomes that are beneficial to their own skill sets and useful to them in the future. When available to students who learn in different ways, PBL is a powerful way for them to get ready for life in the 21st century.


Making PBL accessible to all students comes down to how well it is implemented. Depending on how it is implemented in classrooms, PBL can help improve student motivation, skill mastery, achievement, and readiness. As long as it is accessible, PBL can also help tighten achievement gaps while students of all learning styles and backgrounds develop 21st century skills. Every child has the right to be given what they need in order to succeed. With that being said, project-based learning opportunities should never be reserved for those students deemed ‘gifted,’ but rather spread around equally among all children in the classroom. There are some specific ways teachers can help make it more accessible.


First, teachers should expect that PBL will help all of their students to succeed and then share in that success with them. Students can tell when their teachers believe in them, which often results in better academic performance thanks to improved confidence. Teachers should also promote relationship building when using PBL since it unlocks highly collaborative experiences. When students have input on the projects they’re doing, the collaboration they’re afforded generally takes off. Finally, and most importantly, PBL is at its most accessible when its empowering students to take control. One of the best ways to engage students is to put them in control of their learning. When it comes down to it, the ultimate trait of accessible PBL is allowing students to use their own interests to engage in work that matters to them.


PBL is What Prepares Today’s Kids for the Future


Today’s students are going to be inheriting a different world in the years to come and, since it’s highly technological, they’re going to need to know some things. Work will be different for them than it is for many of us; it’s as simple as that. They will be connected to technology, in one form or another, pretty much all the time. What will help them get rewarded is learning valuable skills, like quick thinking, problem solving, and innovation while they are in school. And, how do they learn those skills? Well, it’s a good start to expose them to project-based learning. Luckily for these students, there are so many alternative forms of education around that were not necessarily available to students in previous years. Not only does project-based learning provide kids with new and exciting ways to learn, it’s especially beneficial at preparing them for the future.


As educators are recognizing PBL’s value in 21st century schools, more and more of them are adopting its practice and enjoying its results. Much of the success students achieve as a result of PBL is rooted in the fact that it employs a methodology that’s both future-focused and hands-on. In fact, research has shown that students who engage in project-based learning tend to be more prepared for the real world than students who partake in more standardized testing. Whether they go on to college after high school or enter the workforce right away, PBL will help. Take enrolling in a college, for example. Hopefully, as many students as possible will be pursuing a STEM degree due to its high degree of relevance in today’s world and having had project-based learning experiences in high school and elementary school will have already exposed them to some of the most important competencies, such as learning how to fail productively, communicating, and thinking creatively, which are all sought by modern employers.


Project-based learning teaches students to be adaptable and flexible as they work to meet the needs dictated by an ever-changing society. Since society is constantly changing, so is the contemporary workplace and PBL challenges help students to realize the importance of recognizing when they need to change something in order to arrive at the best possible outcome. Plus, PBL provides children with the invaluable experience of failure. Failure, you might be surprised to learn, allows students to grow in a number of important ways. About as much can be learned from PBL failures as students learn from their successes. Once students fail at something, they are forced to be more creative in how they go about making it work, which is very much like the STEM workforce. Almost inherently, PBL failures will help students learn to adapt and almost instinctively look for failure because it provides them with the opportunity to begin again.


Why PBL and STEAM Education are a Great Pair


There are a lot of wise quotes out there, but here’s one that’s perfect for our endorsement of project-based learning. “Involvement proceeds excellence.” It’s simple, but wouldn’t you say it’s pretty powerful? Essentially, it serves as a way of reminding teachers (and students for that matter) that, in order to get the most out of their education, children should be directly involved with learning experiences. These students are experiencing their education, not simply learning things in a passive way and, when experience is at the center, real learning happens. PBL, of course, is know for focusing on the practical involvement of students in various challenges and activities, which results in them being more engaged. At its core, PBL aims to give students real-life experiences, which is also a hallmark of STEAM education.


Sometimes, PBL and STEAM are thought to be one in the same. That’s not an incorrect way of thinking as the two definitely share a number of similarities. STEAM education, for example, allows students to focus on open-ended assignments, provides authentic application of skills, helps kids build 21st century competencies, and is more well-rounded than traditional lessons. Aren’t all of those things also true of project-based learning? We would say ‘yes.’ That’s because STEAM education is a natural fit for enhancing PBL. In order to build their STEAM skills, students need the hands-on experience that comes from project-based learning. And, since both PBL and STEAM each extend the limits of education by allowing students to be scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and more, they’re pretty much a match made in heaven.


Like STEAM education, the overarching emphiasis associated with PBL is students learning how to do things -- not just knowing the right answers. It requires the same creative and design processes that are frequently used in STEAM learning. Also, STEAM standards tend to drive the problem students are looking to solve through project-based learning. The process they employ is a huge part of solving these problems and one that can be optimized if they take a STEAM approach. As the two come together in the classroom, the role of the educator becomes even more important as they try to balance proper guidance with letting students figure out solutions for themselves. Oftentimes, teachers have to adapt on the fly and find creative ways to bring all elements of STEAM into student-led PBL, but, when they do, the children they’re trying to get real world-ready will very much benefit.


Ideas for Getting PBL from Good to Great


Sometimes, the start of project-based learning isn’t going to be all that teachers had hoped for it to be. That’s the bad news. The two pieces of good news are that this certainly is not the case all the time and, more importantly, this can always be changed. Think of PBL like playing a sport. If something isn’t working for a team at the start of a game, they’re not going to continue doing it the entire time. Instead, their coaches are smart enough to go with Plan B or try something new to try to get things going. You know what? Teachers can do the same. Recognizing that a certain PBL activity isn’t working as well as you had hoped is great. Not doing anything to improve it, however, is shooting students in the foot. Even though a large part of PBL for teachers is staying out of the way and letting students figure things out for themselves, this only works if they are moving in the right direction. If not, things may need to change.


A lot of different factors can lead to students becoming complacent and fizzling out during their project-based learning rather than maximizing it. Here are some ways in which teachers can eliminate or reduce the negative PBL experiences students have. The first thing is for them to be clear in what they expect from their students and have them develop a plan for how they are going to improve their time in the classroom. Teachers can also regroup by challenging students to create a driving question for their project, such as why they want to solve a certain problem or why this problem has become so big. This could help students tailor their approach to become more interesting to them and show how their final findings tie back into the original question they posed. A lot of the things they do should be documented, which allows teachers to get a better idea of their thought processes. This also helps students remain focused on the smaller things every day and helps them manage smaller group problems while collectively aiming to solve larger ones.


Sometimes, students get tired of working in their smaller groups and whole-class research can help reignite interest in their projects. And, when they return to their groups, teachers should encourage each of them to develop an outline, which will help get them back on track by giving them specific goals to accomplish by specific times and dates -- kind of like a project manager broken down into each week and class period. If it’s something a little more drastic you’re after, part of the students’ projects can be creating contracts that clearly define everybody’s role and their expected contribution to the group. This is a great way to help students visualize their responsibilities and also to hold each of them accountable. Finally, teachers need to make sure their students’ challenges are meaningful to them. Students need to know that what they’re doing has a purpose -- though it’s likely larger than they realize. Trying any of these ideas or maybe even all of them should be enough to get in-class PBL back on track!


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