Project-based learning, or PBL, is designed to help students integrate real-world problem solving with critical thinking and practical application. It encourages students to become more involved with the material they encounter, which enhances their quality of learning. Students are able to work using their own learning style while expressing themselves to their teachers and their group.
According to the Buck Institute of Education, PBL began to take shape in the 1990s following innovations in a variety of school districts. Schools were looking for a way to motivate students, get them more engaged, and improve overall student performance. The system also prides itself on helping students to master 21st century skills, defined by BIE as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.
The concept of project-based learning reverses the old system of education, which introduced a new unit to students, taught them the concepts, and then used a follow-up project to reinforce what they learned. In PBL, students are asked to respond to an open-ended question, problem, or challenge. Their project is built to meet specific academic standards and is designed to communicate defined concepts.
Students explore the project using a variety of creative skills. They can debate various pieces of the subject, develop new interpretations, and look the subject in-depth in order to understand it. Students challenge each other to gain a stronger grasp of the concept.
Students also use practical skills, such as research, collaboration, leadership, and presenting ideas to an audience. These skills are specifically geared to prepare students to function in the modern world. Requiring students to present their findings to an audience increases their motivation to ensure that their project is well-executed and well researched.
Students that might otherwise become bored in the classroom are given the stimulation they need and the opportunity to delve as deeply into a topic as possible. When teachers use PBL, they challenge students to use a wide variety of research and application skills, giving them more opportunities to excel and a greater chance to see how the work they do in the classroom relates to the larger world.
The key elements to a successful PBL unit involve introducing a task that students can find meaning in, as well as being a task that helps the students grasp valuable educational concepts. At its very core, PBL differs from the standard projects that earlier students call to mind.
Rather than being a simple poster project or five-minute presentation, the educator introduces a topic by tying it to something significant to students. For example, a science unit on pollution can be introduced with videos and debates and discussions. A unit on geography can involve discussions on family origins. Connecting the unit to something of interest to the students engages and motivates them to learn more and extend their research beyond basics. The closer the project can relate to the outside world, the more the students can begin to feel as though they are doing meaningful work. The project then requires the students research aspects of the subjects on many different levels.
Questions have been raised about how PBL lessons actually apply to real world scenarios. There have also been indications that some students struggle to use their time and technology appropriately in self-directed projects. Additionally, much of the grading is subjective, rather than the objective standard of a multiple-choice test. This can lead to discrepancies in grades and prevent a challenge for teachers. Finally, subjects such as math may encounter difficulty in fully teaching students the required concepts while still following the proposed theory.
Project-based learning has emerged as a strongly supported educational theory in the face of a struggling American school system. The hope that it can motivate students and create a better education young population is high, but the relatively young age of the system leaves many waiting to see what the future research will show.