What is Project-Based Learning?

You may have noticed that we’ve changed the way we talk about teaching, learning, testing, and studying. There’s a specific language involved; a breaking down of the various ways we, as individuals, learn. If you’ve heard the phrase, project-based learning, you might be wondering what exactly it means.

Project-based learning emphasizes real-world scenarios and a deep understanding of subject material. Unlike some other learning concepts, project-based learning isn’t so different from what you’d expect based on the name. Other methods of learning may focus on presenting information and expecting students to memorize and learn it, but project-based learning takes a unique approach.

An overview of project-based learning

Project-based learning typically takes place over a longer period of time, allowing students to acquire knowledge and develop skills by investigating and responding to real-world questions, problems, etc. Greater emphasis is placed on a student’s ability to question a subject and employ critical thinking in the search for a solution.

A bit of history on project-based learning

Project-based learning originates with Confucius and Aristotle, who advocated for learning through doing. Enter Socrates, who encouraged critical thinking, learning by questioning, and the art of the inquiry. Then came John Dewey, who argued in favor of student-led experiences that required students to take an active role in their learning.

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The Montessori schools of the 20th century modeled this thinking, and continue to offer project-based learning to students of many ages today.

The crux of project-based learning

A crucial part of successful project-based learning is a good problem from which to operate. Instructors should come up with problems that do not have just one answer. Instead, they should be complicated problems with multiple, complex solutions.

Good problems are those that cannot be solved in a traditional classroom, instead requiring the discovery process of project-based learning. For example:

  • How can we increase the population of endangered birds in our area?

  • What can we do to reduce our dependence on processed foods?

  • How can we prepare our community for extreme weather conditions?

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Qualities of effective project-based learning

While there are many worthwhile projects, not all are created equal. For project-based learning to be successful, thoughtful projects must be employed.

Effective project-based learning typically should:

  • Focus on measurable goals and skill development

  • Work toward solving a meaningful problem

  • Allow students to explore solutions for a prolonged period of time and be multidimensional

  • Exist in the real world, along with their solutions, and be relevant to students

  • Provide the opportunity for students to make decisions

  • Encourage reflection on process, quality, and obstacles throughout

  • Facilitate feedback and revision in process and outcome

  • Display student work to the public in some way

A project-based learning model might, instead of a book report, have students review books on a podcast, promote them on a website, or ask the public to respond. Here, the goals of a book report are still met, and then some.

Project-based learning examples

While project-based learning is essentially limitless, viewing a few examples can help you visualize what it might look like for you.

Local issues

Project-based learners might choose to tackle something that is an immediate need in their school or community. Students might choose to examine something like the flow of students into a cafeteria, relying on their knowledge to design a system that is more efficient for both workers and students.

They may also choose to solve a larger problem—reducing the carbon footprint of their school, for example.

Small projects

Though some project-based learning projects require extensive time, others can be accomplished in a short amount of hours. Perhaps students plan a lunchtime meal that meets dietary needs of a large group or addresses a more holistic look at nutrition.

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Projects that emphasize the importance of communication can be great for students and require few resources. Instead of teaching a history lesson, students might give presentations on history based on interviews they conduct with community members.

Project-based learning is limitless. With it, students are especially equipped to come up with creative, innovative ways to explore concepts.


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