Creative Teaching: An Introduction to Project-Based Learning

What we learn to do, we learn by doing.

Thomas Jefferson

As one of our founding fathers stated so long ago, in order to truly learn a new skill, we must use it. Now, in the educational world, this does not mean doing more practice problems. It also does not mean more homework. What it does mean is to apply a new skill to an authentic, real-life project that we may encounter in our everyday lives, whether as a kid or an adult.

Cue one of my favorite creative teaching practices…project-based learning, or PBL. This month, we have been chatting a lot about advanced learning, and this teaching method is perfect for your gifted learners! Having said that, please do not hesitate to use PBL with all of your learners, regardless of their academic levels. Should a project be challenging for a specific group of students, incorporate mixed-level partnerships, teacher check-ins, and small group work. There are so many opportunities to include intervention and differentiation within PBL.

In this blog post, we will get a brief overview of project-based learning by addressing the following questions:

  • What is project-based learning?
  • What are the benefits of project-based learning?
  • How do I get started?

What is project-based learning?

PBL, or project-based learning, is a teaching method in which students gain and apply knowledge through long-term projects that encourage critical thinking in multiple subject areas, creativity, and collaboration. Often, these projects are completed hand-in-hand with the curriculum. In other words, students work on these projects at the same time that they are learning the necessary skills for the task at hand.

Although I will walk you through how to get plan a project later in this post, I would like to explain what I mean by working on the project at the same time as working through the curriculum. Although PBL can act as the curriculum itself, with teachers implementing skill-based lessons as students work through their projects, PBL can also be used to supplement a curriculum. Let’s say that you have a project where students are designing a menu based on seasonal, local ingredients. They would need to learn about a specific location or biome, research popular recipes, calculate the cost of ingredients, and write menu descriptions using persuasive language. Rather than teach all of these skills at once and then start the project, I would teach a mini-lesson on the first skill and then have students apply that skill to their menus. I would start with science lessons on various biomes, for instance. Afterward, the students would work in pairs to brainstorm plants and animals in their chosen biomes. For the next lesson, I may teach a research skill (i.e. how to identify reliable sources or how to look up a library book) before having students research popular recipes. I would go back and forth between mini-lessons and PBL work time.

What are the benefits of project-based learning?

What I love most about project-based learning is that it emphasizes “the why”. Students discover first-hand why they are learning the skills in class. For example, students may discover why they need to learn about decimals if they are creating a budget or developing a menu for a restaurant. As a teacher, it is sometimes difficult to communicate why we learn the skills we do. With project-based learning, these conversations come up naturally in lessons.

Another benefit of PBL is that it encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Every project-based learning activity should start with a Driving Question. This question is the task or challenge that students must address through the completion of the project. Please note that this is not the learning objective. It should not be structured as a state standard or an “I can” statement. Rather, the Driving Question should introduce students to the real-life application problem that needs to be solved. Here are a few examples:

  • How can we design a low-cost playground in an abandoned lot with _________ dimensions?
  • How can we start a non-profit organization to address _______________?
  • If ______________ (historical figure from any given time period) were to start an online business today, what would it be?
  • Develop a reserve for an endangered species.
  • Using your knowledge of what made ancient societies successful, create your own civilization.

PBL also allows for student voice and choice. When designing a PBL project, make sure the project does not have a “right or wrong” answer. There should be room for creativity and interpretation. When writing the Driving Question, make sure it is an open-ended question; it cannot be a “yes or no” question. In addition, allow students to make some choices throughout the assignment, such as choosing the online program to use, choosing the topic or subject for the project, selecting their partners or groups (this requires a brave teacher), etc. By giving students opportunities to make their own choices, you are encouraging students to take ownership of their learning, which leads me to the next point…

Project-based learning increases engagement by encouraging students to take ownership and pride in their learning. I cannot emphasize this point enough. No matter which grade I have taught in the past, I have noticed one commonality: students become very proud of their PBL projects. When a student takes this kind of ownership, they become invested, and this investment results in higher engagement.

How do I get started?

So, now that we have learned a bit about project-based learning, how do we get started?

  1. Choose one main subject area. This will be your focus. I usually center my projects around social studies or science. These projects often act as our assessments in those subject areas.
  2. Write a Driving Question. (My next post will go into detail about how to write a strong Driving Question.)
  3. Divide the project into parts and choose your target standards. You may want each part to focus on one essential standard. For example, if students are creating online businesses, one part may be calculating cost/profit (math standard) and another part may be creating an advertisement or product descriptions (writing standard).
  4. Create a rubric and success criteria to share with your students. This is critical for student success. Students need to know what is expected of them.
  5. Introduce the project and show exemplar examples. If you teach the same grade level and use the same project year after year, you will collect some exemplar examples. Until then, feel free to show examples from the real world. For instance, before my students start creating their own online companies, I show examples of websites (i.e. McDonalds, Disneyland, etc.). In the next lesson, I even show examples of logos and mission statements.
  6. Choose partners or small groups. Even if you want students to work independently on their projects, I would strongly encourage you to assign mixed-level partnerships. This allows all students to have a partner who can offer feedback and help brainstorm ideas.
  7. Create a timeline and check-ins. Once the project has been planned and introduced, it is time to get to work! Plan mini-lessons and check-ins. As mentioned earlier, I recommend going back and forth between mini-lessons and work time. After every few lessons, I would plan a check-in with the students so you can offer feedback on each part of the project. I know what you are thinking…this must take a ton of time! I myself have 35 students, but I meet with them in pairs/small groups. It only takes a few minutes per pair/group. Trust me, this is completely manageable and will save a lot of heartache. Your future self will thank you. Without check-ins, you risk students being totally off the mark or even worse, not completing the project at all.

Wouldn’t it be nice to only do the final two steps?

Let me do the planning for you!

Check back here for some ready-made PBL projects.

Project-based learning does not have to be daunting or time-consuming. Does it take time to plan? Yes. Do you have to do it alone? No. I am more than happy to help you get started!!! Simply email me at melody@learning-n-progress.com.

Once your students get started on their projects, you will get to see the real magic happen: student engagement, ownership, and creativity will significantly increase. You will be blown away by the work that students produce! Plus, once you have these completed projects, your students will have something very impressive to show at Open House, PBL showcase (more info to come in a future post), or parent-teacher conferences. This is a teaching style that will completely transform your classroom.

Other Blog Posts that Specifically Target Your Advanced Learners

Th 5 Ws of Differentiated InstructionDive-into what differentiated instruction looks like in an elementary school classroom.
Upper-Grade Math Centers: To Rotate or Not to Rotate?Learn how to make small group learning manageable in your upper-grade math classroom. Your advanced kids will love you for it!
Flip It: How Can a Flipped Classroom Help Improve Student Engagement?Learn how to flip your classroom to help you meet the needs of your advanced learners while supporting the kids who need you the most.
Depth and Complexity Icons: Where Book Clubs Meet Advanced LearningDiscover how depth and complexity icons fit into your student-run book clubs.

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

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