What if there were a way to infuse more energy and joy into the classroom? What if there were a (pedagogical) vehicle that could serve as an impetus for student collaboration and critical thinking, while addressing a significant portion of all those pesky standards? What if there were a way to facilitate learning that encouraged collaboration among colleagues and empowered students?
While there’s no magic silver bullet that will solve all the issues exacerbated by Covid-19 or state tests, there is a possibility that with a bit of thoughtful creativity, we can end this academic year on a strong note by using project-based learning (PBL).
PBL often gets dismissed because it’s perceived as “yet another thing on our already overfilled plates,” but as author John Spencer shares in his article “Seven Myths Keeping Teachers From Implementing Creative Projects,” “As I shifted toward a PBL approach, I realized that it wasn’t about adding something new to the plate. It was about reorganizing my plate.” But what does it look like to “reorganize your plate” in a way that might help alleviate some of the seemingly insurmountable challenges you face daily?
There’s no denying that these past few years have taken their toll. But if we rethink how we use the time we have, if we focus on strengthening classroom culture, and if we make the learning journey more transparent—in service of students—there’s opportunity for joy and empowerment. There’s a chance that PBL is worth another look after all.
Here are three reasons why now might be the perfect time to take a second a look at PBL.
1. You Can Rethink How Time Is Used and Structured
Right off the bat, let’s address that giant elephant constantly staring you in the face: time. PBL is often seen as too time-consuming to plan or implement. All those video examples look like they take 12 weeks to pull off. Who has time for that? It sounds exhausting before even getting started, so why bother? But if we challenge our assumptions regarding what PBL has to look like in order to be “high quality,” we find that time may not be as large a barrier as it may seem.
We could focus on smaller, more concise chunks of time, perhaps looking at two to three weeks of standards and seeing what naturally connects for a more authentic set of learning experiences. What if you collaborated with a colleague (let’s say you teach math, and they teach English language arts) to create a project that focused on using your specific content areas to impact or promote change locally?
Not only could collaborating help lighten each of your lesson planning and grading loads, but also it could empower students by highlighting just how real learning can be. Imagine the rewards you’ll gain from collaborating on a project’s creation, coordination, and presentation with colleagues.
2. Learning Can Be More Transparent and Responsive for Students
What if students saw their learning making a difference? So much about the past three years has felt like it’s happening to them, and that perception can make learning much tougher. PBL units can not only empower students but also ignite excitement for learning, discovering, and questioning, which also brings educators much-needed energy. These intentional content connections provide other benefits.
First, integrating concepts buys more time to explore, manipulate, and question topics. This actually increases rigor in ways that empower students, rather than boring, frustrating, or overwhelming them. Seeing connections beyond the classroom provides a natural “so what” to why they need to learn each concept. Second, whenever students are out for several consecutive days, they can then return to a series of connected lessons and thoughts, versus feeling the pressure of making up 15 days of individual lessons. It’s much easier to jump back in when there is an easily discernible pattern and connection between everything.
3. PBL Strengthens Classroom Culture and Function
Time has always been a challenge, and recently it seems even more acute. Research suggests that, on average, you lose approximately 7–10 minutes of instruction time per day to common management issues like off-task behavior and another 6–7 minutes due to common interruptions like phone calls or surprise visits by the principal. These lost minutes add up to hours by the end of the month and weeks by the end of the year. However, most project-based teachers find interruptions less of an issue for two important reasons: They are less likely to always be the center of instruction, and they have well-known structures in place to help keep students engaged.
When classroom norms and expectations are understood—in most cases cocreated with students—it promotes both clarity and buy-in from the beginning. When students work in collaborative groups, a structure that provides additional support when clarification is required, they experience individual and team accountability through creating shared products. These groupings are strengthened through teacher-provided tools like team agreements, work logs, and protocols that are all focused on promoting self-sufficiency. These tools free you up to lend additional support to individual students or to deal with unforeseen issues.