5 Ways to Get Started With Project-Based Learning

It’s time our schools function less as factories that churn out pupils laden with decontextualized content knowledge, and more as innovation zones that develop the next generation of problem solvers. What if schools were beacons of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking? There’s never been a better time to create classrooms that matter, to make project-based learning a reality! Consider these 5 steps to help your school get started.

Create a Vision: According to a recent article from Phi Delta Kappan, one of the biggest challenges to PBL is defining what PBL really is. In order to successfully implement this type of learning into your schools, you and your teachers must be on the same page with a foundational understanding of what PBL is and what it is not. This is a critical step since some educators think that because they do fun, engaging projects with their students, that they are doing PBL, when that isn’t always the case. If you find teachers are struggling to see the difference between a simple, culminating project and a project-based learning unit, you might try the Project vs. Project-Based Learning Sorting Activity with them. Print these 6 scenarios (answer key) and have teachers sort them by whether they are a project or a project-based learning unit. Once you have completed the sorting activity, consider having them test their understanding of PBL with this quick Projects v Project-Based Learning quiz.

Select an Idea: Once foundational knowledge has been laid, encourage your teachers to focus on engagement and relevance first. Instead of thinking, “I have to teach decimals. How can I make this interesting and relevant?”, flip the thought process to “What would my students find interesting and relevant? How can I connect decimals to that?” Sometimes this requires a bit of creativity, but with a little effort, most content can be connected to a meaningful, relevant project. Share these Blue Apple
Project Ideas
with your teachers to help them springboard into their PBL planning.

Answer 3 Big Questions: Once teachers have their idea, they can start fleshing out their project by identifying how their project will engage students’ hearts, hands, and minds by answering these three questions:

  • How will this idea engage students emotionally?
  • What will students do or make (big picture)?
  • What will students learn (big picture)?

Create a Storyboard: Teachers can use this storyboard to build upon their project idea. In this step, they will focus on what real-world connections they can make, what specific content standards they want to address, and what opportunities there might be for collaboration.

  • Real-world connections: Teachers first think about ways they can bring the world to their students. What industry experts might be able to share their knowledge? Then, they think about how they can bring their students to the world. Where and how can they display their work so that it can be viewed well beyond the classroom, ideally by an audience authentic to the topic?
  • Content Standards: When a project is engaging to start with, teachers can usually connect it to a large number of content standards. They don’t have to hit all content areas, but the more they do, the better the context will be for learning, and the more instructional bang they can get for the time spent on the project.
  • Collaboration: Encourage teachers to look beyond simple cooperation to complete a task. Explore opportunities for students to make meaning together. How can one group within the class support the understanding of another? How might student understanding be improved if they worked with another group outside their classroom, perhaps in another part of the country?

Build Lesson Plans: Now it is time to put their project outline into motion! Teachers can use the back side of the storyboard to develop lesson plans and identify resources that complete the project path:

  • Start with Why: Motivate students with a compelling question and engaging hook.
  • Think it Through: Guide students in exploration and discovery.
  • Work it Out: Support collaborative teams as they apply critical and creative thinking to real-world problems.
  • Fix it Up: Encourage iterative thinking with purposeful feedback and revision.
  • Share your Awesome: Give work relevance and meaning by presenting it to authentic audiences.

Here’s a sample completed storyboard for the project: Take a Stand.

Whether you’re an established PBL institution, have a few teachers implementing PBL, or are brand new to the concept, the key is to tap into the elements that drove teachers to choose this profession in the first place. Most teachers want to create memorable, meaningful experiences that give an authentic context for learning. They just don’t feel like they have time. Equipping them with the PD, resources, and ongoing support to teach this way will not only help you achieve your goals, but might just reinvigorate their love for teaching as well!

By Dawn McCotter, Van Andel Institute for Education

The Principal’s Desk was founded by Dr. David Franklin Dr. Franklin is Strategy Consultant for Nearpod, an experienced school administrator, education professor, curriculum designer, published author and presenter and has presented at national and international education conferences.

Published by David Franklin

Dr. David Franklin is an experienced school administrator, education professor, curriculum designer, and presenter. Dr. Franklin has presented at national and international education conferences as is available for school and district professional development sessions.

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