Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Project Based Learning is Not All Fun and Games

As I see many schools start to revamp their school wide strategies to be more "Common Core Friendly," I feel compelled to make a case for project based learning on a number of levels. Common Core Standards call for more rigor, critical thinking, reading comprehension, writing, and the ability to analyze text to present findings. In my opinion, this fits perfectly with Project Based Learning. However, the first and biggest step to moving towards Project Based Learning is to dispel all of the rumors associated with it. When many educators think of Project Based Learning, they think of fun and games. They think of month long projects that involve making castles out of marshmallows and performing skits to explain the functions of microorganisms. Although, these two projects do sound like fun, they are far from what Project Based Learning actually sets out to accomplish.

According to the Buck Institute For Education, the following is the definition of Project Based Learning: "In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student "voice and choice," rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations."
Clearly this definition does not sound like students are playing around without any direction. In fact, it reveals the true complexity and focused intent of Project Based Learning. It requires students to ask important questions and find the answers through research with the teacher's help.

As I observe classes at our Project Based School and research similar models throughout the country, this point has been reaffirmed time after time: Project Based Learning, contrary to public perception, actually requires more structure than a traditionally based classroom. Many people in education would find that assertion to be ridiculous but if you examine the definition carefully, then it cannot be denied. In a PBL classroom, the teacher is responsible for creating the project, providing the framework in which the students will work, establishing check points in which students will be evaluated on progress, working as a guide to help the students in their process, and grading the student's final product. In a non-PBL environment the teacher will create the assignment, lecture to give information, assign reading, and grade. This is not to say that non-PBL teachers do not work hard, because we all know that they do. I had some incredible teachers who worked outside of this model and have many friends who do as well. However, it does reveal that Project Based Learning, if done properly, takes a lot of work and structure to be effective.

Many people have arguments against standardized testing. However, nobody I know would argue against school accountability. To have accountability, you need data to measure the "success" of schools. On a National scale, it is very difficult to measure students in a non-multiple choice format. The same goes for the classroom. It is easy to manage multiple choice tests, lecture, and worksheets. It is very difficult to manage project creation, detailed rubrics, projects that are scaffolded, and student monitoring through the process. However, the latter is the more genuine way of learning in my opinion. The teacher is the guide and the students lead the learning. How did you learn to change the oil? How did you learn the sweep on your football team in high school? How did you learn to drive? It would have been much easier for these things to be taught through lecture (maybe not driving) but you learned by doing. That is the basis for Project Based Learning. It shifts the teacher's role, it requires students to get outside of the comfort zone, and it challenges them to think for themselves.

If a teacher rolls out a project that does not fit this criteria, then it is not Project Based Learning. This is very difficult to implement and make successful. However, just like the students in a PBL model who have to figure it out through trial and error, so must we. It will take structure, time, patience, and tenacity, but it is a great model for kids to get a real world and relevant education. Leading is Teaching.

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