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By Amy Hubbard
Senior Curriculum Designer at Knovva Academy
M.Ed from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Project-based learning has been used in classrooms for decades and has proven effective in a variety of academic subjects. According to Edutopia, “studies have proven that when implemented well, project-based learning (PBL) can increase retention of content and improve students’ attitudes toward learning.” But what exactly is this teaching method, and why is it good for students?

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered model of teaching that emphasizes learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary, and creative. PBL evolved from the work of psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive constructivism. This asserts that students are not empty vessels who come to school to be filled with knowledge, but rather individuals who come to class with their own ideas, or mental models, about the way the world works. New information and learning are “constructed” over these existing mental models. 

When a student incorporates new information into their mental model, assimilation occurs. This makes it easier for students to incorporate and accept new ideas and concepts because these are consistent with their prior knowledge. When information doesn’t make sense with existing models, there is a need for accommodation. That means students need to work to change the way they think about a new idea or concept in order to construct further knowledge.

Learning By Doing

So how do students accommodate or assimilate new ideas, concepts, and thought processes? They learn by doing. Constructivist teaching methods are based on the belief that students build knowledge through their experiences, rather than through instruction.

The process of project-based learning takes students through cycles of inquiry in which they build upon their prior knowledge. A cycle of inquiry is when students develop or respond to questions about a real-world problem, investigate the problem by seeking authentic sources of information rather than textbooks, and then generate new questions for further research or engineer their solution in a different way. After several iterations, students’ work culminates in a product that is shown to a real-world audience connected to the problem or topic at hand. By the end of a PBL unit, students have solved a problem, gained a new skill, learned a new way of thinking, or created a new product. 

A well-constructed PBL experience includes a driving or essential question that motivates students to explore through individual and group inquiry. In this way, students are given more voice and choice in their learning because they determine the best way to solve the problem in front of them. As they work hard to address feedback about their approach to the PBL challenge, students keep revising until they are ready to publicly present their product or solution.

Here are some examples of essential questions that drive compelling PBL experiences:

  • How can we, as NASA scientists, write a proposal that recommends which planet should be explored by the next space probe?
  • How do we, as architects, design an outdoor classroom for our school and then build it?
  • How can we create a campaign to convince kids to eat healthier foods?
  • What public health policies are needed globally in the midst of a pandemic, and how can they be effectively implemented?

When students are faced with an interesting challenge that has real-world implications, such as global responses to a pandemic, they are motivated to investigate. They have a genuine need to know more about the subject. Students buy into the PBL concept because the contexts for many of the projects are found outside the school walls. Students also enjoy exploring projects that emerge from issues that affect them locally as well as globally. These factors make the learning relevant to students. They seldom ask “Why are we doing this?” because they have had a choice and voice in what they study.

PBL’s Connection to 21st Century Skills

21st century skills are a set of behaviors and thinking that will prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s challenges, both at work and at home. Young people need to be adept at communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity (sometimes called the four Cs of 21st century skills). When students engage in project-based learning experiences, they gain the ability to communicate clearly both interpersonally and across many platforms, think creatively and critically as problem solvers, and possess the skill to collaborate well with others. PBL is not just a way of learning; it’s a way of working together. If students learn to take responsibility for their own learning, this will form the basis for the way they will work with others in their adult lives.

Knovva Academy has created project-based learning experiences that appeal to students with varied interests and abilities. Knowledge in Action provides a series of online learning programs designed around engaging real-world skills and valuable knowledge through project-based learning. Knovva Academy provides students an opportunity to participate in authentic investigations, experimentation, and problem-solving in response to real problems and challenges. These projects focus on questions or problems that drive deep learning and cutting-edge research. Each course in Knowledge in Action invites students to learn about a different topic while working on a long-term project, whether it be creating a video game or writing a policy brief about pandemic prevention.

Even more benefits of PBL!

PBL offers multiple ways for students to participate and to demonstrate their knowledge. It is also a great way to engage students who have abilities that are not traditionally valued in the classroom such as musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, or the other six intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. PBL 

shifts students away from doing only what they typically do in a classroom environment and encourages the mastery of technological tools, thus preparing them for the workforce. Exploring essential questions prompts students to collaborate while also supporting self-directed learning. By using this teaching method, classrooms can become supportive and non-competitive spaces that help students develop a variety of social skills relating to group work and negotiation. Plus it promotes the internalization of concepts, values, and modes of thought that relate to cooperation and conflict resolution. More importantly, however, PBL provides a means for transferring the responsibility for learning from teachers to students.

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