Friday, 2 May 2014

The 8 essential elements of project-based learning

We kickstart our new series on the practicalities of PBL with the 8 essential ingredients for perfect project-based learning.

Project-based learning seems to be the next big thing in the education world. And it’s really not hard to see why when you read of the amazing projects going on in schools all over the world. You can almost taste the excitement of both students and teachers in these accounts.

But what makes for good project-based learning? After all, we’re all familiar with the dreary ‘design a poster’ or ‘create a powerpoint’ type projects so common in our own youth.

Well, first off, a good project has to be meaningful to the students. It also has to fulfil an educational purpose. But that’s not all. Overall, there are 8 elements which are absolutely essential for any project to be a success:

1. Curriculum content
The project has to be aligned with the curriculum. It can cover curricular content in a range of subject areas, but there has to be a focus on teaching students important knowledge outlined in the curriculum.

2. 21st Century skills
Along with curricular knowledge, the project also needs to target the development of so -called ‘21st century skills’ and competencies. But what can we class as 21st century skills?

The University of Melbourne’s ATC21S project puts them into four categories:
  • ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
  • ways of working – communication and collaboration
  • tools for working – information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
  • skills for living in the world – citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
So it’s quite broad then! Clearly, targeting them all would be impossible, so your PBL unit should target the development of a just a few. You’ll also need to plan ways to assess this. Creating a rubric is a good idea. This website offers loads of ready made ones!

3. Need to know
The project has to motivate students to want to learn the new content knowledge or gain new skills. They have to find it meaningful, and they have to find the topic, driving question (see next essential element below) and tasks genuinely interesting and relevant.

You need an exciting and motivational entry event to introduce pupils to the project. If this isn’t dramatic or memorable enough, day one of the project will feel like any other day – in fact, it’ll feel worse, because it'll seem like more work than usual!

4. Driving question (DQ)
The driving question is exactly what it sounds like  the question or stimulus that drives your project. 

Your DQ needs to capture the project’s main focus, but be understandable (not too ‘text-booky’ or academic) and inspiring. It also needs to be open-ended  it can’t lead students towards one particular answer, and students must be able to answer it thoroughly with the resources and time available.

Not a simple task, we’ll admit, but never fear! In the next article in this series of blog posts, we’ll be considering good driving questions and how to go about creating your own.

5. Student voice and choice
The idea behind this element is allowing students to make decisions affecting the content of their project or how it's conducted. Student voice is already quite a common feature of many classrooms, but in PBL, it’s got to be more than deciding how to divide tasks within a team or which website to use for research. Students need the opportunity to express ‘voice and choice’ on more important matters such as which topics to study, the questions they investigate, the resources they use, the product they create, their use of time and organisation of tasks.

Students need to work independently from the teacher, but don’t make them work too much on their own! They’ll need ample guidance from you, especially if they’re new to PBL and its procedures. You’ll also need to provide sufficient feedback and in-depth critiques as the project and their product progress (see ‘Reflection and revision’ below).

6. In-depth enquiry
This element is all about rigour. The project has to be academically rigorous. It can’t just be an extended activity – it has to be an enquiry.

It also needs to be scaffolded, growing deeper as students gather and interpret data to answer the driving question, ask further questions of their own, develop and evaluate their solutions and build evidence for their final answer.

Getting the balance right here can be tricky. The inquiry can’t be too narrow, but it also can’t try and include too many side topics or task.

7. Reflection and revision
There have got to be plenty of structured opportunities throughout the project for students to give and receive feedback about the quality of their work-in-progress. Constructive critiques play a large part in this. You, as a teacher, need to provide them, but students will also need to be taught how to give them themselves to their peers. They also need to be able to reflect on and critique their own work.

Part of the assessment of the students’ final product (see below) should be how well they've used the feedback you and their peers have given to improve and refine it.

8. A final product presented to an audience
PBL is not PBL without a final product and an audience. Students should present or exhibit their work to an audience – and it’s got to be more than just you and their classmates. Get other people involved, both from within and outside the school. You could also have students target an online audience.

Another important part of the final product/exhibition is the students’ explanation of how and why they did what they did. This could be presented orally or in written form – whichever’s more appropriate. This has got to have depth – students need to be able to defend and explain their reasoning behind their choices in detail, as well as make it clear that they understood the inquiry process, and prove that they took the feedback they received throughout the project on board to improve their work.

An intimidating task?
So that’s what makes a good PBL project! Worried?

Admittedly, setting up a PBL unit is no small feat – it’s like conducting a massive orchestra, getting all the instruments to come together at the right time and in the right way – but the rewards can be immense.

In order to help you along the way to those immense rewards, we're launching a brand new series on the practicalities of project-based learning. We’ll be covering driving questions, planning your project, creating the perfect entry event, the art of critiquing and much more.

All the information will be from real teachers who’ve tried this stuff in their classroom – tried it and had the most mindblowingly awesome time with their students they want to share it with the rest of the world.

Our next post (everything you need to know about good PBL driving questions) will be out next week. Keep an eye out!

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The 8 essential elements of PBL featured in this article were inspired by this rubric from the Buck Institute of Education, available to download for free.


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