A Whole New World: Part II

Several weeks ago I began this journey into explaining and sharing the world of Project-Based Learning (PBL). You can see that post here.

To say that PBL is extraordinarily exciting for me to talk about would be an understatement. As a warning up front, I am quite biased in my views on PBL; this is mostly to do with the successes I’ve seen students accomplish through this mode of learning. Here is a quick definition of Project-Based Learning for anyone who is unfamiliar: Project-Based Learning (pbl-online.org, 2005) is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom.

What does that really mean? It means relevant learning.

Times have changed and we can all mostly agree on this attitude; what most of us do not agree on is what has changed and what that change means. Right now, in headlines across America, you can see the role of public educators attacked. No matter your party affiliation, I would hope we all can agree that teachers are not the core issue in our country right now. Could we be producing better teachers out of college? Yes! But it is awfully hard to do that when bureaucracy and entrenched traditions are the characteristic of what decides how to produce a good teacher and how to define a good teacher. Although I firmly believe these political obstacles should be extirpated, the core issue is not the teachers–it’s in how we teach. PBL has given me great insight into this notion. Let me tell you a quick story–

It is time for the second project of the year in my inaugural PBL course year. The first round of projects were rough, and many of us, including me, are reeling from the reality of how difficult getting a PBL class off the ground really is. A group of young men approach me and the other instructor of the course and present an idea to create an event for the community that would teach them about their local economics and culture. As the class is a mixture of human geography, language arts, multimedia, and even heath/PE, we were curious to see how this project would unfold. With our guidance they began to ask and answer the question of how do you boost your local economy while learning more about the people who make up your community? The event started to take shape as they researched the demographics of the the community and its history. In time they came up with an event called “Get Active!” The goal of the event was to encourage physical and mental health and help boost the local economy of their city. This was shaping into a very real product quickly. Both instructor and student alike were becoming excited about the possibilities of the project/event. During the course of their research and project building, they developed technical writing skills, research skills, academic resources skills, speaking skills, productivity management, team work, learned about their local community’s growth and history, and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. All the aforementioned skills are incredible learning moments considering they did all of this in three weeks, but the icing on the cake is when they went to the city event coordinator to pitch their idea for holding the event in the city. What happened next is what reminds me why I’m an educator. The event coordinator heard their pitch (they set up the meeting by themselves and met with her by themselves) and considered their words and ideas. She then looked at each of them and told the young men that they were more prepared than most adults that she meets with about events and that the city would love to hold to the event. The had done it; their event was now real; their product was now real. Let me please emphasize these young men are all only fifteen years old.

The story above is true and incredible at the same time. Since this project was developed, several more have been created that have blown me away. Seeing what a young teenager is capable of creating and conceiving when you just give him or her a chance is astonishing at times. These students are learning true 21st century skills while also learning the content and skills demanded in the national, state, and county level standards. These students will be more prepared for their first year of college after their freshman year of high school than most of my high school’s graduating seniors. What does that tell you about our traditional teaching approach? Do not get me wrong. There is a balance to be had here. There is a time and place for lecture and test preparation, but on a daily basis the actions and concepts of project-based learning and even problem-based learning is the constructivist theory in action. Teaching students real skill sets for the world they are a part of is possible and desperately needed! I believe in what PBL can do because I’ve seen and experienced it with my own two eyes.

By the way, the project from the story above will come to fruition on May 14th this year. Here is a link to the event’s website that the students built and maintain 100% independently (even as they work on new projects): Get Active!

In my next post on this series, I’ll share with you practical ways to get PBL involved in your classroom or in your life for that matter. In the meantime, check out The Buck Institute and their resources. Happy project building!

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