What is project based learning?

A hands-on approach to develop real-world skills, resiliency and a love of learning — here’s how we practice it at Prisma.

Prisma Staff
• 
August 2, 2022

A hands-on approach to develop real-world skills, resiliency and a love of learning — here’s how we practice it at Prisma.

Ecosystem dioramas, erupting papier-mâché volcanoes, and speeches given by historical characters — projects are a part of any learning environment. But doing a culminating project at the end of a traditional lesson isn’t the same as “project based learning” (PBL).

So, what is project based learning? According to PBLWorks (formerly the Buck Institute for Education), “Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

This active learning experience deepens student engagement by asking them to wrestle with real world topics that pique their interest: climate change, public health, urban planning. As long as the topic is presented in an age-appropriate way, there’s no limit to where a project based approach can take you.

After a brief discussion on the benefits of project based learning, this post will walk through the gold standards of PBL, providing tips if you want to try this approach on your own, along with examples of how Prisma learners approach projects in our online, home-based school.

What are the benefits of project based learning?

Interdisciplinary by design, project based learning breaks down the silos of traditional academic content. In a conventional school setting, students shuffle between discrete periods dedicated to individual subject areas: You learn social studies for 60 minutes, and the bell rings, and off you go and learn language arts and the bell rings - again.

This traditional approach does what it was designed to do: increase content knowledge. But outside classroom walls, adults don‘t sit in their job and do history for 30 minutes, and then go off and do math.

To help students get ready to tackle real-world problems, project based learning builds the skills that will be key to success in the 21st century: critical thinking, problem-solving, and project management. Project based learning activities require students learn to plan, set deadlines, make revisions, and ultimately, present their project, honing communication and teamwork skills along the way.

Ultimately, project based learning is a kind of age-appropriate professional development that gives kids the deeper learning opportunities they need to be engaged citizens.


What is project based learning like for different age-groups?

With the right setup, elementary school, middle school and high school kids all benefit. The foundation, Edutopia, includes project based learning in their six core strategies to transform K-12 education. Offering resources to engage students of all ages, they even provide evidence that this approach is effective in preschool, allowing kids to gain 21st-century skills while having fun.


What are key elements of project based learning?

If you want to try a project based approach, here are the seven essential project design elements according to PBLWorks — and how we bring them to life at Prisma.

A Challenging Problem or Question

Start your project by determining the driving question which, according to PBLWorks, should be ”open-ended, understandable and inspiring to students, aligned with learning goals.”

Letting go of a subject-based approach might feel uncomfortable, but a genuinely open-ended question will lend itself to multiple subjects naturally.

For instance, in our learning cycle on “Cities of the Future,” we asked questions like: Is the future of humanity in space? How will cities adapt as we work to save our world from climate change? How can we build kinder, more fair communities for future generations?

These questions — which led to projects on green architecture, public art, disaster preparedness, public health and urban planning — testify to our belief that learning should be “hard fun.” Give a kid a complex problem and empower them to solve it, and they’ll naturally want to spend time working at their fullest potential.

Sustained Inquiry

Forget the image of a scholar buried neck-deep in books. In project based learning, immersion happens, according to PBLWorks, when “students pose questions, gather & interpret data, develop and evaluate solutions or build evidence for answers, and ask further questions.”

Encourage students to start their hands-on investigation by exploring it from all possible angles — with the upfront expectation that they’ll change direction multiple times along the way.

This question-centric approach is fundamental to design thinking, one of the core competencies of a Prisma education. For example, in our “Inventor’s Studio” Cycle learners develop human enhancements to increase accessibility, augment our strengths and go beyond our limits. After an initial brainstorm, students conduct a series of interviews to gain a deeper understanding of the end users.

This part of the process is all about keeping an open mind as learners work to understand the perspective of whomever they are proposing to help. Instead of trying to solve a problem for someone, have your learner get the end-user involved, by asking questions, making observations, and experiencing the situation firsthand.

Authenticity

One of the hallmarks of project based learning are real-world applications. As PBLWorks explains, “the project has an authentic context, involves real-world tasks, tools, and quality standards, makes an impact on the world, and/or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, or identities.”

Use your news feed for ideas. Any number of current events and trends  lend themselves to a project, including climate change, the future of work, and the Syrian refugee crisis. For example, as part of the “Cities of the Future” learning cycle, students built decision-making skills using real-life crises, such as how to distribute a limited supply of vaccines.

Authenticity also means building student learning around real-world tools, for example, using the US Natural Hazards Index Map to create an emergency hazard plan. And, if you connect the project to a personal interest or need — creating a hazard plan for your family, based on the highest environmental risks in your area — you add a further dimension of authenticity.

Choose relevant — even urgent — topics that allow kids to insert themselves in real-time conversations, and you‘ll never hear them ask you, “Why do we need to know this?“


Student Voice & Choice

To get kids excited to do the ”hard fun” of learning, prioritize giving space to their interests. As PBLWorks explains, this approach dictates that, “Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create, and express their own ideas in their own voice.”

Start each project by encouraging students to brainstorm how their interests intersect with the topic. In our “Build a Business” cycle, learners start by listing their passions and strengths (writing, coding, animals), then think about intersecting business ideas. One horse-loving learner created a subscription box for horse owners; another duo united their programing and writing skills to create an AI ghostwriting service.

To push away from a one-size-fits-all pedagogy, give students a say in how they present their material, for example, letting them choose whether to respond through written or spoken word. When you allow student choice, you let their intrinsic motivation flourish — which is when the most profound learning happens.

Critique & Revision

Another pillar of project based learning that goes hand-in-hand with the designing thinking mindset is critique & revision. According to pblworks, ”Students give, receive, and apply feedback to improve their process and products.”

As their facilitator, you’ll naturally be part of the critique & revision process, helping to foster a growth mindset by encouraging them to see any ”mistakes” as opportunities for improvement [link to article]. However, including others in the feedback process helps kids experience a diversity of perspectives — and challenges them to sift through the suggestions as they decide how to revise their project.

Peer critique is a particularly important part of the project based learning pedagogy, because it allows learners to experience feedback outside the traditional student-teacher dynamic. As part of our “Games for Change” learning cycle, learners code their own video games with the goal of making them accessible to all (regardless of learning difference) and get feedback from their fellow Prismarians in live workshops.

Make sure to find opportunities to let students give and receive feedback. That way they’ll be able to see how their contribution shapes other high quality projects — and to recognize how their peers help them improve their work as well.

Reflection

With so many moving parts to project based learning, the reflection standard is all about bringing the lessons home. According to PBLWorks, one key feature of the process is that “Students and teachers reflect on the learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, and obstacles that arise and strategies for overcoming them.”

Throughout the process, build in opportunities to reflect on feedback they’ve received from you and their peers - and to periodically review their reflections as an opportunity to observe their own growth.

Public Product

In order to test out the real world impact of a project, bring the experience full circle by sharing it with the ‘public,’ ideally a curated audience with genuine interest in the topic. (We do this at Prisma during our Expo Days that come at the end of every five-week cycle.) During this event, says PBLWorks, “Students are asked to explain the reasoning behind choices they made, their inquiry process, how they worked, what they learned.“

During the Expo Day for our ”Food Lab” cycle, learners present scientific posters detailing their experiments, for example, how oven temperature impacts cookie crispiness, or whether the type of fat affects a wonton’s yum-factor. Then, each scientist answers questions live from parents about their testable questions, methodology and results.

In addition to being a great way to practice public speaking (and nip that common fear in the bud), public presentations serve as  an opportunity to celebrate and a launching pad for further development: When kids see others engage in gratifying, often unexpected ways, it can spark new ideas that catalyze further innovations.

Encourage your kids to narrate their experience — obstacles and all — and it will help students reinforce a growth mindset: When they embark on their next, even more ambitious, project, looking back on their first effort will offer a source of confidence.

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