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By Rachel Lund

Rachel Lund is a Learning Designer at Knovva Academy where she spends her time researching and writing lesson content. She previously managed professional development courses at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from HGSE in 2011 with an Ed.M in Human Development and Psychology.


Project-based learning is a pedagogical strategy that allows students time and space to explore an open-ended, real-world question. In short, it’s more than just a project. Good project-based programs incite curiosity, sharpen investigative skills, and promote transfer. Ideally, students learn to use their newfound knowledge and skills in other situations. 

Project-based learning is supported by psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive constructivism: the theory that we all have knowledge to build on and make our own meaning. PBL helps students build on their existing knowledge to follow an avenue that interests them, all the while practicing skills like research, writing, and interviewing. 

Real-world issues often have more than one correct answer and require investigation and research. For this reason, project-based learning has the ability to ignite intrinsic motivation. Students often need to use reasoning skills and articulate their methods to an audience. Doing so provides a sense of responsibility and engagement. Engaging in project-based learning will allow students a chance to practice learning strategies that are common in higher education. 

Knovva Academy has created a project-based learning experience to meet the needs of teachers and parents. Knowledge in Action is a series of online learning programs designed around acquiring real-world skills and valuable knowledge through project-based learning. Knovva Academy provides students an opportunity to engage in authentic investigations, experimentation, and problem-solving surrounding real-world phenomena. 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.

As summer programs cancel their offerings, teachers can suggest summertime PBL or plan for the next school year. Many social distancing measures may still be in place in the fall, and there may still be a reliance on distance education. To learn more about the benefits and steps of PBL, let’s explore the process and resources available to teachers and parents. 

Creating an essential question

Project-based learning begins with creating an essential (or driving) question. An essential question, as described by the renowned educator Grant Wiggins and Jay Tighe in their landmark book Understanding By Design, is getting to “the essence of an issue.” Wiggins suggests approaching the question not as a teacher but as a “thoughtful adult.” 

What questions make you want to dig into the answers? What questions make you ponder for a few minutes? What are questions that you think you can answer, but need the time and space to do so? Those questions are the ones that speak to us, and we may come back to them throughout our lives, each time with a different understanding from perspectives that allow nuance and complexity. 

Wiggins suggests that big-idea questions are not only about exploring answers but “learning how to learn.” Project-based learning involves steps that show students how to get answers, and in the process, find the right questions to ask to get to the heart of an issue or explore new paths of inquiry. Writing a good essential question will make or break a project; do so thoughtfully! 

Researching online

Students will no doubt need to do research for their projects. Providing students with tips on finding reliable sources is essential. While Wikipedia may provide students with a starting point, it is far from a primary source. Suggest to students that it may be a good place for an overview of a topic, and that they might find some cited references they are interested in exploring. News articles and general information websites are also great places to start to get an idea of trends, controversies, or key players that relate to students’ projects. 

Once students have a better idea of their topics, they can begin to explore discipline-specific references. They can relate to an essential question through various lenses. For example, an essential question such as, “How can we help local businesses increase environmental sustainability (e.g. reduce waste)?” can be explored through a local government policy lens, through a business lens, through an environmentalist lens, or through a consumerist lens. There are many possible perspectives from which a student could research this question, and in order to do so, they will need to look for reliable sources in each area. 

JSTOR now has free access to their journals, books, and papers. While the access is limited, this can connect students to reliable academic resources. 

The Library of Congress has an extensive virtual research resource page with links to science and technology, politics and government, law, and image resources. CommonLit provides a range of nonfiction resources for students in grades K-12.

Remind students that researching and identifying reliable sources takes deliberate practice. It is a skill that needs to be honed, but with time, students will be able to quickly recognize what is reliable information and what is false. 

Interviewing

Students may also want to interview experts for PBL. To begin, students must come up with a list of questions. While they may not use all the questions in their interview, it is good practice in brainstorming. Creating questions encourages critical thinking. For ways to integrate this into the classroom, check out the book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana.

Interviewing skills emphasize empathy, synthesizing and articulating main points, and coming up with follow-up questions in the moment. 

You may want to begin by giving students examples of various questions. A list of Yes/No and open-ended questions can assist students in visualizing what answers will be more specific and rewarding, or allow them to keep the conversation going. Let’s go back to the driving question, “How can we help local businesses increase environmental sustainability (e.g. reduce waste)?” If a student is interviewing a local business owner, you might present them with the following: 

“Do you think local business owners should be responsible for reducing waste in their neighborhoods?” 

“How can local government officials help local businesses adopt practices that encourage environmental sustainability?”

“What policies do you support in helping local businesses increase environmental sustainability?” 

“Here’s an example of a local environmental policy that is geared towards business owners. What parts of the policy do you agree with and what do you disagree with?”

Ask the students to identify the questions as open-ended or Yes/No. Then ask them to brainstorm their own questions for 10 minutes (this can be a group activity). Have them write down every question they can come up with, then ask them to discuss and decide which questions to keep. 

Although students can definitely interview via email, it would be great practice for students to interview via web conferencing or phone. Interviewing can be formal or informal. Remind students to do their homework, i.e. research their interviewees ahead of time! 

Writing

No matter what form projects take, students will have already done a lot of writing for their interview. Even multimedia or art projects will require planning. You may also choose to have students write proposals for their projects, or provide a weekly reflective exercise or peer review process that will both capture their progress and provide a method for feedback. 

Students that have chosen longer-form writing assignments such as scientific papers, research papers, or narrative essays will need many examples. Collect and organize these examples. 

Final project presentation

In the age of social distancing, a presentation may need to be done via web conferencing. Encourage students to be creative and informative! As mentioned before, students can showcase their work using a variety of methods: scientific papers, multimedia presentations, films, art projects, or others. Again, a great way to get started on this is to use one of Knovva’s Knowledge in Action series. 

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