Project-Based Learning often gets a bad rap. Those who do not advocate it claim it is arts and crafts or lightweight on content. The Buck Institute for Education, http://www.bie.org/, has for almost 20 years focused its work on project based learning. There are other sources, but they have done a thorough job in defining, researching and promoting this experiential form of education. It seems to me it is anything but arts and crafts.
Project-based learning asks a real question of inquiry. The question must be complex so that it will require extensive research, “the project,” to find an answer or answers. The project should take days, weeks or months and allow a student to discover the answers to the question from their own choice of perspective. Teachers must guide students in creating an essential question that relates to content standards and then, must facilitate students staying within parameters that will guarantee desired learning outcomes. Again, a question that can relate to a real world experience is best. The goal is for a student to learn about a subject in-depth, apply what is learned, and be able to create something new.
WHAT IF? WHY? HOW?
Throughout K-12 education, everyone ends up doing a few projects. Build a diorama, make a volcano, put pictures on a poster board with some explanation copied from some credible reference source. Yes, I do hope there is some emphasis on a credible reference source, and I wish that no one copies, but someone always does. Creating a relevant, driving question makes it harder to copy. The point is to research, synthesize information and give outcomes. Night of the Notables(NON) is an example of what many teachers believe is an advanced or more complex project, lasting a quarter of the school year and often using cross-curricular media. Pick a person from history or science and research, then give a speech dressed up as that person for an audience. Included can be pictures of the character, their accomplishments and even a favorite food. Kids like this “project,” I think. Although many people are impressed with this, it lacks some of the fundamentals of project based learning.
For example, instead of simply researching the life of Carl Sagan as a character for Night of the Notables, you could ask, Who scientifically researched the idea of extra terrestrial life and what are their findings? The research done can be similar provided that the Night of the Notables presentation includes research from a wide variety of sources and collaboration of some kind through interview or interaction. The point of true project-based learning is that it revolves around a driving question. The opportunity for students to choose a subject, present their research, possibly apply what they have discovered and reflect on the process does exist. I am not too sure if Night of the Notables goes this way most of the time. I have been at quite a few presentation evenings for Night of the Notables, and most of it was glorified “dress-up.” The potential is there, it depends on the implementation, expectations and follow-through.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the proposed Next Generation Science Standards(BGSS) will provide a great venue for what to learn. Project-based learning provides an excellent opportunity for how to learn the what. Teachers and administrators must see beyond the facts and give students the opportunity to get excited about learning. Project based learning affords the opportunity for students to use their strengths and interests to gain knowledge and proficiency. The NGSS revolve around experiential learning, so project based learning that is deep and comprehensive will soon become the way it is done. Will we say good-bye to poster boards decorated with computer printed pictures, lists and cursory information power points? My hope is at least to put an end to the ones that are not all-inclusive, well-synthesized information that answers a driving question and demands that students use of critical thinking skills to solve problems and apply what they learn to create something new.