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Project-Based Learning


What is the theory behind the PBL approach to curriculum planning as a tool for engaging and enthusing children?

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a tool for engaging, enthusing and exciting the children as well as for developing 21st century learning skills.

It involves students in complex activities that build skills and knowledge through application. The aim is for students to design, plan and carry out a project that produces a publicly-exhibited output such as a product, publication, or presentation. With this method, predictable outcomes are achieved while allowing students the freedom to expand and define their own learning experiences.

In PBL, students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student 'voice and choice', rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st century skills (such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products and presentations.

Using PBL, students gain a deeper understanding of the concepts and standards at the heart of a project.  The projects also build vital workplace skills and lifelong habits of learning, and can allow students to address community issues, explore careers, interact with adult mentors, use technology, and present their work to audiences beyond the classroom.

PBL is related to enquiry-based learning and problem-based learning, but the distinctive feature of project-based learning is the publicly-exhibited output.

When students know that the work they are creating in a project will be displayed publicly, this changes the nature of the project from the moment they start working – because they know they will need to literally ‘stand by’ their work, under scrutiny and questioning from family, friends, and total strangers.

This inspires a level of ambition and commitment much greater than is fuelled by the incentive of ‘getting good marks’. In addition, students’ families, as well as other people from the local community, get to see what is going on in the school, providing an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the school and community.

Effective Project Based Learning involves:

  • Organising around an open-ended Driving Question. This focuses students’ work and deepens their learning by framing important issues, debates, challenges or problems.
  • Critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication. Students need to do much more than remember information. They need to use higher-order thinking skills and learn to work as a team. They must listen to others and make their own ideas clear when speaking, be able to read a variety of material, write or otherwise express themselves in various modes, and make effective presentations. These skills, competencies and habits of mind are often known as '21st century skills', because they are prerequisite for success in the 21st century workplace.
  • Teaching significant content. Goals for student learning are explicitly derived from content standards and key concepts at the heart of academic disciplines.
  • Inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new. Students ask questions, search for answers, and arrive at conclusions, leading them to construct something new: an idea, an interpretation, or a product.
  • A need to know essential content and skills. PBL reverses the order in which information and concepts are traditionally presented. A typical unit with a 'project' add-on begins by presenting students with knowledge and concepts and then, once gained, giving students the opportunity to apply them. PBL begins with the vision of an end product or presentation. This creates a context and reason to learn and understand the information and concepts.
  • Some degree of student voice and choice. Students learn to work independently and take responsibility when they are asked to make choices. The opportunity to make choices, and to express their learning in their own voice, also helps to increase students’ educational engagement.
  • Processes for revision and reflection. Students learn to give and receive feedback in order to improve the quality of the products they create, and are asked to think about what and how they are learning.
  • A public audience. Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher – in person or online. This 'ups the stakes', increasing students’ motivation to do high-quality work, and adds to the authenticity of the project.

PBL can be used extensively as a primary curriculum instructional method, or occasionally during a school year. Projects vary in length, from several days to several weeks or even a term.

Ultimately, PBL allows staff to respond more readily to the interests of the children and the context (seasons, current events, school issues etc.) when deciding their 'projects' or 'enquiries'. However, it is important to move away from fixating only on content, coverage and the use of existing resources when using PBL, as this can prevent staff from offering learning experiences that genuinely engage the learner and have a relevance to their lives.

The articles in this Knowledge Bank can be accessed with subscription to Creative Teaching and Learning. For more brilliant project-based learning resources and project packs, see the Project-Based Learning Education Zone or the Project-Based Learning Resources section of our Knowledge Banks page.

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