Project Based Learning – 3 Steps to Get Started

In this article Jorge provides three clear steps to help you get started with Project Based Learning. 

Project Based Learning

If you’re new to Project Based Learning (PBL), the concept of doing projects can seem daunting, overwhelming, and perhaps outright tricky. Moreover, many educators do have some experience with having their students ‘do or create projects.’ Let’s, therefore, get some clarification into what we mean by ‘project’ when we say PBL.

According to PBLWorks, the leading organization for PBL in the world, “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.”

For educators who are new to PBL, it is important to remember that in the definition above, Project Based Learning is described as ‘a teaching method’ — an instructional approach — moreover, a way to teach. Most importantly, it’s a research-based instructional approach that teachers can use to help emotionally engage their students in compelling and meaningful ways.

Whether we teach in-person, remotely, or in a hybrid model, PBL has become a much-needed strategy in today’s education world, and research supports this. If you’re looking to enhance your teaching practice with PBL, here are three ways to help you get started started.

1) Know the difference between projects vs. PBL

When distinguishing between traditional projects and PBL, there are a couple key differences. In PBL:

  1. The products (what learners make) are not the project — the project is the process, not the product(s).
  2. ‘Projects are the main course, not dessert’. This is a concept originated by PBLWorks, which means that the project is the main course of the learning and shouldn’t come last.

The first concept is relatively simple to understand; the second requires some explanation for which I’ll share two pacing charts to provide clarity.

Typically, in a meal, the dessert comes last and in traditional projects, so does the project. For further elucidation, let’s examine the pacing chart for a traditional dessert project in figure 1.

Figure 1: PBL Schedule

Above, you’ll notice many traditional classroom activities include lectures, watching videos, quizzes, station rotations, and even some group work. However, the project (actually the product here) is created after the learning happens. And with very little revision time, it’s promptly presented by the students. Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide them much time to rehearse, revise, and truly develop their ideas.

Traditional “dessert projects” are not all bad; they’re just not PBL. Figure 1 is not what is meant by Project Based Learning.

In contrast, let’s look at the pacing chart for a main course project in figure 2.

PBL Schedule 2

In figure 2, you’ll notice that the project is introduced on day one through an entry event that should be leveraged to provide students with a ‘need to know’ for the work’s purpose and informs them about the products they’ll be creating. A good practice is to invite experts as guest speakers to make entry events more compelling and authentic. But of course, this practice isn’t only limited to the entry event in a project.

After the entry event, I like to manage lessons, activities, and learning in the following four-step process:

  1. Mini-lesson
  2. Work time and reflection
  3. Feedback protocol
  4. More work time for either revision or continuing

This is extremely helpful for keeping classes organized and looking at the work systematically. I prefer to hold projects for three weeks and for my students to complete their products in three to four drafts. I admit to skimping a bit on lengthy whole group lessons and choose to work with smaller groups during periods of ample work time to model, remediate gaps in previous learning, and reteach vital concepts as needed.

I (the teacher) provide my learners feedback for the final draft, so I keep everything paced using the four-steps mentioned and as seen in figure 2. It’s not perfect, but it’s a structure that I’ve seen success with over the years and helps me keep the project as the main course.

2) Use a PBL model or framework that is research-based

Research-informed frameworks are extremely useful in education because they can provide a structure for teaching and learning that can become models for a course or lesson/project design. The right framework can help teachers align their learning goals with classroom activities and build a classroom culture that is both collaborative and inclusive.

Therefore, teachers will need a solid framework and foundation for designing and implementing their PBL projects. Without that, they might just be winging it in the classroom — and inevitably doing dessert projects instead of PBL.

There are several organizations that provide research-informed frameworks, models, and methodologies for implementing PBL. Here are three for your consideration.

  1. The High-Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL) framework is the consensus of the world’s leading experts in PBL. The framework is DIY and can be downloaded in either English or Spanish. It is also extremely useful for helping educators define the student experience and gives them guidelines for planning high-quality projects.
  2. Gold Standard Project Based Learning by PBLWorks. This model is powerful and comprehensive because it provides frameworks for both project design and implementation (teaching practices).
  3. PBL and PrBL Unit Design by New Tech Network (NTN). NTN equips teachers and facilitators with a ‘Quick Guide’ for designing both project and problem based learning experiences for students. Teachers learn to do this by aligning best teaching and learning practices like assessment, scaffolding, supporting English language learners, and building classroom culture (among other items) using a PBL framework.

3. Adapt projects, but make them your own

Both newbie and experienced PBL teachers need to have reliable sources for getting project ideas and also a sound methodology for adapting them while still making them their own. But as many teachers already know, adapting curriculum or other resources does not mean that we follow each step line by line; we need to personalize it to fit the needs of our students. Having a good project design template doesn’t hurt either.

Adapting projects is no different, and there are some things to consider for doing it right. First, it is okay to get ideas, activities, resources, templates, and inspiration when developing our own projects. However, it is not okay to simply copy someone else’s project unit design. Not only is it inauthentic, but it robs us of the opportunity to personalize project context, purpose, and activities for the learners we serve.

Below are some notable sources that you can use for finding good project ideas and classroom activities as you begin designing your units. (YES, you will need to design your own units.) Don’t forget that practice will make you better at doing projects over time — especially when we use principles from the concepts and structures for PBL mentioned above.

Project Ideas and Resources by discipline

My other resources for both in-person and remote PBL

A version of this article was previously published on medium.

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