Project-based learning is a way of developing students’ learning through having them “engage in a real-world problem or answering a complex question,” as stated by PBL Works. The structure of traditional teaching methods means that most lessons blur into one. I always think back to my time at school as a student and ask myself, what do I remember learning? Unfortunately, the answer is – not a lot! It’s not because I didn’t have great, passionate teachers, but rather the way I was taught.
Traditional teaching methods struggle in being long-lasting, memorable and developing students’ creativity, problem-solving, communication and critical thinking skills. Answering questions from textbooks and copying down notes will always be vital for learning and remembering information, but it is difficult to develop deeper-learning and higher-order thinking through them.
Many disengaged students struggle to find a connection with what they are learning in the classroom, to the outside world. I recently attended the iOnTheFuture 6 Conference and John Larmer and Suzie Boss from PBL Works and they spoke about allowing young people to feel like “real-citizens.” Project-based learning is an awesome way of bridging that gap and allowing students to develop their skills that are vital for any job in the 21st Century.
However, like a lot of trends in education, PBL has become extremely popular around the world, but is often only done as a “dessert” project at the end of a term or topic. I have also worked with schools that label their work, “Project-Based Learning,” but really it’s just a topic project or a bunch of learning tasks. One of the reasons that I moved into a primary school setting was because of the ability to run cross-curricular PBL tasks. While it is possible in a high school to do PBL, it may have to involve multiple faculties all working collaboratively! Without this being supported across the school, it is often put in the “too difficult” basket.
My Year 4 class completed a project-based learning task focused on PDHPE & English Outcomes. As my background is as a PDHPE teacher, it was a lot easier for me to put together and allowed me to use this as a bit of trial as well (as the school I am at have not really use project-based learning tasks in the past).
Project-Based Learning Example
The focus question was, “Can Year 4 students make their community healthier, safer & more active?” In small groups, they developed videos targeted at Primary School communities that could assist one or more of the following:
- Health & wellbeing
- Participation in physical activity
It involved the use of a Hyperdoc (will do another blog on Hyperdocs) to guide student learning. I also set up weekly peer and self-reflections to be completed through Google Forms with a Marking Rubric set up on Google Classroom for them to be assessed with.
Creating a Project-Based Learning task
Using PBL Work’s Gold Standard Seven Essential Project Design Elements as a guide, this is how I developed the task.
- Deciding on the project I started off by looking at the outcomes for all the key learning areas that needed to be met by my cohort. Then, seeing which ones stood out as being possible project opportunities.
Another way that you could do it, is to base it off student interest areas and develop a project that they would be engaged in and then see which outcomes it could link up with.
- Developed my challenging question, as Kelly Pfeiffer from Dubbo School of Distance Education stated, it needs to be one that cannot be “googled”. I was able to use syllabus terminology but still in a language that Year 4 students could understand.
- Making it authentic. To ensure that the project was authentic, I thought having them produce a video and linking it up with National Health & Physical Education (HPE) Day. I am also looking to get in some external experts to give some feedback and guide the projects, to demonstrate the links to the real-world.
- Setting up the Hyperdoc. This is a great way to scaffold the steps that were required for my students to follow and also tie in the peer and self-evaluations that I was using for formative assessment.
- Research: As this was a Year 4 class, I decided to do the majority of the research myself. This way I was able to find age-appropriate and relevant links. Researching is a skill in itself and one that I wasn’t going to focus on for this task.
- Groups: Having spent years splitting kids up into sporting teams, I have learnt that it is always more equitable when the teacher chooses the teams! For this project, I looked for a good mix of abilities in each group.
Starting the project-based learning task
Just because you have already set up the task and they will be creating their own work, it doesn’t mean that your job is done! I still led them through every step and provided support and direction for each group. I would not allow any group to move onto the next step until I had seen what they had completed and what their plans were.
- PBL Task Introduction: I created a presentation that went through what the PBL Task was and gave them examples of different things that they could create. Above is an example of what young people are able to produce.
- Step 1: “Explore” became my first step and each group was assigned three articles to review, I also added extra resources at the bottom for further reading.
- Step 2: Their second step was to brainstorm and plan their project. For English, we have been looking at the Seven Steps to Writing Success. I referred to it when talking about planning for success and how our best ideas aren’t always our first ideas. Firstly, they were required to silently write down 2-3 ideas individually and then pick their top three as a group. They also needed to post it to Google Classroom and give advice to other groups. I then assisted them in choosing one idea to focus on and then they had a planning sheet to complete.
- Step 3: Produce their product. The exciting part! My students were genuinely excited about creating their videos. Without prompting, they were all writing scripts, bringing in outfits and working outside of class hours.
- Step 4: Their final step, after submitting the task, was to share their product. They needed to present it to the class and the wider community for National HPE Day.
At the end of each step, they were required to complete self and peer reflection through Google Forms. This includes questions about their involvement, how they promoted the inclusion of other group members, challenges that they faced and how they overcame them. I also have a pre and post questionnaire to assess what they actually learnt from the task.
Challenges and adjustments for future PBL tasks
Like with a lot of schools in NSW, my first major hurdle was sourcing enough devices for each student! Also, despite using Google Classroom regularly, many students still struggled with the whole logging on process and of course – following the instructions! Using Google Classroom is fantastic, but for public schools in NSW, it can involve a lot of steps just to get there.
In a perfect world, I would have explained the first step in more detail and even delegated specific articles to individual students, so that I could have more control over the differentiation. While I did have articles that would suit different levels of reading ability, I relied on the students to work out which ones to read.
Another thing that I have been working on, but definitely takes time, is teaching them how to work cohesively in a group. This is a challenge that even adults face, but I truly believe that if we can build up their ability to collaborate and communicate from an early age, it will set them up well for the future. As an educator, it’s one of those things where you have to allow them to work out problems for themselves and then get them to reflect on it. It ties in well with the whole school initiative of Critical and Creative Thinking from Minds Wide Open.
Finding the appropriate space in the school has also been tricky, I am currently stuck in a demountable classroom. This works fine for day-to-day teaching, but is difficult when trying to find space for six separate groups that need to have discussions and record videos! I have been flexible in allowing groups to work outside of the classroom, but that also has its own challenges.
I have a few students who struggle to stay focused in the classroom, but love sport. So, I thought doing a PDHPE focused task may engage them, however, I probably needed to make the link between the theory and practical side of things more explicit. I found some of them switched off at the start because Step 1 was a “reading” activity.
It would be more effective to put in more time towards the reading and researching phase. Due to time constraints, I felt the need to push onto “Step Two” when the deeper-learning would have occurred if we focused more on understanding what our issues are in health, safety and physical activity. They also needed to know what was being done and what else needs to be done. I would have loved to have led them in some activities as examples of what they could have led themselves.
As this was their first PBL task, there are many aspects that they will improve on in the future (as will I). As the project got closer to completion, each student realised the meaningfulness of it and increased their effort and involvement.
Despite the various challenges, overall student engagement improved (I will update this post with exact numbers once the final reflections have been completed) and commitment towards the task. Most students worked on this task outside of class time with preparation going into writing scripts, editing videos, organising outfits and completing reflections.
This screenshot was taken from Google Classroom and shows some of the positive feedback from my students.
Due to strict regulations around social media in NSW government schools, unfortunately, I am unable to share their final products. So, you’ll just have to trust me when I say they turned out great!
The rest of my Stage 2 colleagues are keen to learn more about project-based learning and I will be running some TPL, as well as collaborating on some future projects! I would love to hear about other positive project-based learning stories.