Project-Based Learning: Bringing the Real World into the Classroom

Special Focus : Educating Global Citizens for the 21st Century
Designing an Effective Training Program July 14, 2017

Project Based Learning (PBL) is nothing new, but it has recently resurfaced as a reliable and meaningful way to both engage all students and focus on deeper learning. Drawing on constructivist and experiential learning methods, PBL focuses students on meaningful task completion that is different from simply “doing projects” in the classroom. In fact, the metaphor we often use to describe the difference between PBL and doing projects is that PBL makes projects the “main course of learning” rather than the dessert.

When we think of traditional implementation of projects in the classroom, they are often culminating experiences after main business of teaching and learning has been done. PBL instead makes a project a meaningful context for learning and an opportunity for students to show what they know. Students are given an authentic task and purpose, voice and choice in how to complete the project, and interaction with a real-world audience to showcase their work and learning. Studies have shown that PBL increases student achievement in the classroom in multiple content areas as they are able to retain the content learned. Students also show increased critical thinking and problem solving skills needed for the future. In addition, PBL students do better than students on traditional exams like the Advanced Placement Tests. PBL, overall, is an effective way to make sure students learn important content and skills needed to be successful in the future. It is also a way to engage all our students in meaningful learning.  

As an effective way for meaningful learning, PBL has great potential to nurture global-ready citizens. PBL requires students to investigate authentic problems connected to the curriculum, but that doesn’t mean these challenges have to be limited to the classroom, school, or even state. Students can be challenged to look at global issues from water quality and health to resource scarcity and human rights. These topics are relevant and real, and can help create even more powerful PBL experiences. PBL gives teachers the opportunity to target global competencies and skills students need to be successful. When we “begin with the end in mind” and target these competencies, we can design effective projects to create global-ready citizens who will make positive changes to the world. Then what are the keys to designing a project-based learning classroom?

Define Content and Transdisciplinary Goals

When teachers design PBL for the classroom, they should identify the content and skills they want to assess in a project. These goals might be more discipline-specific or might focus on long-term transfer goals or “21st century competencies” that are important across all disciplines. These learning goals are not only taught throughout the project, but are assessed throughout both formatively and summatively. Teachers might still give traditional instruction, but it is part of a larger, more authentic goal. Teachers might have students peer-assess or self-assess along the way, but the goals are also assessed in the final products created by students and connected to the authentic task. These might take the form of presentations such as speeches or podcasts, blogs or letters, or even media products like websites or scale models.Here students show what they know as they apply their learning in a meaningful context to ensure transfer of knowledge, rather than simply retaining it for a test.

Focus on Student Engagement

Research shows that students are more motivated and engaged to learn in PBL classrooms. When designing projects, teachers should ask themselves how the learning they expect for students connects to the adult world. What problem or challenge might students engage in to learn content and skills identified? How might students share this learning with adults and experts to receive feedback as well as be asked challenging questions? This creates more student engagement as the learning is meaningful and students must present their results to adults. In addition, students take on more ownership of the learning. Because they are given an authentic challenge, students must decide how they want to learn and what they need to do both as a team and individually. Students are motivated through the voice and choice offered to them through a sub-topic given to them to explore, their team members or the products they create to share with an audience. By designing and implementing PBL for students, we can better engage them. 

PBL is already happening across the world, but now it is time to embrace it globally and commit to it as a viable way for students to engage in meaningful learning. The focus on deeper learning and student engagement takes the traditional implementation of projects and upgrades it to a powerful, research-based way for students to learn. Research shows that teachers report greater satisfaction with their jobs and students benefit through a sense of achievement. PBL can make teaching and learning move beyond the status quo towards 21st century teaching and learning.