Exploration of Three Exemplars of Project Based Learning featuring:
“More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!” - Diane Curtis, Edutopia
“Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning” - Sara Armstrong, Edutopia
“March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies' Migration” - Diane Curtis, Edutopia
The Edutopia examples of project based learning run the range from first grade to high school, but they all share some common themes. Engaged learners, collaborating in real life problem solving abound regardless of the project or the age of the students. The projects cross multi-disciplinary boundaries and teach the learner a multitude of process skills. These include and are not limited to: planning, setting goals, researching, reporting, brainstorming, synthesizing, and presenting. In a project-based environment, content is based on what students wonder about. The curriculum is student driven and affords the learner real world experiences. It is an “I wonder” curriculum based on what students wonder about.
Although the projects appear to be student driven, the teacher plays a very real guiding role. Responsible for infusing curricular standards while maintaining a facilitative role is much more difficult than standing in front of the classroom. The teacher must be willing to think outside the box. Making connections from student interests to real world application and curriculum and standards don’t just happen. Time management and outside planning are crucial. The role of the teacher is to be supportive, encouraging, open-minded, and flexible. The art of active listening, providing resources, and process monitoring are just a few of the skills the facilitative leader of a project-based classroom needs. They need to be able to give up their own power for the good of empowering the learner. Creating life-long learners becomes the goal of a good facilitator. All in all, the teacher is a mentor and a coach that impacts student learning by creating authentic experiences for the students.
The students in a project-based classroom have a different role, too. No longer are they the passive digester of spoon fed knowledge. They must take responsibility for their learning in a way the traditional student never did. The students need to develop a desire to learn and key into their internal curious nature. The learners need to become creative problem solvers. The textbook no longer gives the answer to the problem. Communication, collaboration, and decision making are skills important to all students in a project-based classroom.
In all aspects of the three examples, students were given meaningful learning experiences. The projects they were a part of became a part of them. Given a paper pencil test at the end of each experience would most likely show that the students learned the skills teachers deemed necessary to meet curricular standards. What this paper pencil test would not show is the realistic relevance and depth of the student learning. The final products including verbal explanation and tangible products gave a much wider view of their learning. These were not experiences that would easily be forgotten after the “test.”