Why You Need to Implement Project-Based Learning Right Now
Project-based learning (PBL) is a wonderful way to engage students in the classroom. At least, that’s what lots of educators have been saying. There are plenty of articles that will tell you how to do it, but not many that will tell you why you should do it. Educators sometimes get so wrapped up in the process, they forget to share the valuable “why.” After using PBL in my classes for over a decade, I can share some of the best reasons to integrate it into your lessons.
PBL Gives Students a Chance to Collaborate
There is such a rush to assess students as individuals that helping students learn valuable collaboration skills is often overlooked. One of the leading reasons to use PBL in the classroom is that it gives students the opportunity to work together on various projects. Students are able to connect and learn together as they explore a wide variety of topics in the classroom.
Working in a middle school, I have made a concerted effort to create projects that allow all students to connect, learn, and grow together. One of my projects asks students to work together to design houses and build them in Minecraft Education Edition. Not all students are as skilled at building in Minecraft as others, so there were many opportunities for students to collaborate and support one another and their ideas.
Part of collaboration is letting students know that it is fine to let other group members know that they don’t know how to do something. That is the first step in learning how to do it! Middle school students are wonderful at helping one another and take pride in the fact that they have skills they can pass on to other students. We want students to grow as learners, and collaborating during PBL is a great way to do that.
PBL Develops Problem-Solving Skills
Another wonderful result of PBL is that students develop and nurture their problem-solving skills while collaborating on projects. While students spend their time researching the project and coming up with potential solutions, rarely are they able to find a solution that works perfectly on their first attempt. This adversity that students face is a good thing, despite how it might frustrate them. That frustration turns into innovation as they work to solve the problem.
For example, I challenged students to construct a bridge out of craft sticks that could hold at least five pounds. They thought this would be a fast and easy build but were shocked to find it was not. The groups that did the research discovered that they needed to use a certain type of building technique to accomplish this task. Students reinforced their research skills as well as their problem-solving skills as they worked to find a solution.
PBL Helps Students Accept Failure
One amazing part of PBL is the acceptance of failure that is built into the process. There will be plenty of times that students are working to solve a problem and they will fail. In a traditional setting, students only have one shot at an assignment, and the grade is the most important end result. In PBL, students understand that there are going to be times when they will fail. When students understand that they can fail as they learn, they are more willing to take risks and explore more complex solutions. We want our students to try, even if the solution is more difficult than they were expecting.
For example, in one project I assigned, students were asked to create an object from a short story that we read together in class. One student spent the entire week trying different variations of a solution to a problem he faced. He was frustrated but also dedicated to finding an answer. On the last day, after four or five failures, he solved it. When I asked him why he kept working for so long, he said that he didn’t want to turn in something that was just “good enough.” Through PBL, students are given the chance to try and fail and try again. We need all students to have this ability to persevere through failure in all subjects, and that is why PBL is so valuable in the classroom.
PBL Boosts Students’ Creativity
One of my favorite parts of PBL is the level of creativity that it brings out in students. For far too long, worksheets have become the norm in the classroom for assessment and understanding. Very little creative leeway is provided to students as they fill the empty lines on a sheet of paper. Not every worksheet is terrible, but they can’t be the only way to assess learning.
PBL allows for students to be able to demonstrate understanding and show off their creative skills. When students have a chance to show off their creativity, the engagement for a project goes through the roof. You’ll see students readily taking ownership of their work when you allow them to take charge and direct what their end product looks like. Showcasing their creativity allows for students to strengthen those leadership skills as well as develop further understanding of the content being covered in class.
One project I assigned asked students to demonstrate their understanding of the specific elements that are found in American gothic stories. One student surprised the entire class by creating a portfolio of photographs she took to demonstrate what each element would look like personified. She did all of the makeup and costuming for her younger sister and created eight amazing photos that not only demonstrated her understanding of the gothic elements but also her love of art and photography. This quiet student really took charge of the assignment and created something amazing. The positive response to her work in class led her to take photography classes at the high school, and she later won awards for her work. You can see that giving this student a chance to express herself creatively led to much higher engagement in the content. When the engagement was higher, understanding and retention increased. That is exactly what any teacher would hope for in an assignment.
Project-based learning is not just a fad, and it does not need to replace every lesson type you use over the course of the school year. It is an approach that allows students to fully engage in the content, express themselves creatively, collaborate with peers, stretch their problem-solving skills, and learn to overcome failure. These are all things that every teacher wants to see from their students.
As you continue to explore the different ways that PBL can enhance the learning experience in your classroom, do not get overwhelmed by thinking you need to change everything you do. Take it one small step at a time; try PBL for just one assignment and see how it goes. From there, make tweaks and try again somewhere else. It might take you a couple of years to get the implementation of PBL to look just right for your classroom, but it is time well spent for you and your students.
If you are looking for more support to implement PBL, check out my book, Beyond the Poster Board: Project-Based Learning in the English Language Arts Classroom or my other books on Makerspaces and Making in the classroom.