Expert View

Learning in Action: Project-Based Learning

Sanjhee Gianchandani

By Sanjhee Gianchandani, Editor ELT
Amidst an unprecedented pandemic situation, as responsible educators we are thinking, strategizing, and constantly making ourselves aware of new pedagogical approaches which can be easily implemented in a real or virtual classroom setting. The challenge that most of us face very often is to be able to link classroom teaching to a real-world scenario and to be able to make teaching more effective and relevant to 21st-century learners.

What is project-based learning?

An important instructive approach to teaching is through ‘Project-based learning’. Defined simply, project-based learning (PBL) is nothing but a dynamic classroom approach wherein students take responsibility for their learning by acquiring deeper knowledge about the subject matter through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. In this process, students become autonomous learners as they work for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem. Thus, PBL presents a viable alternative to rote memorisation techniques or completely teacher-led deliveries of instruction which are often critiqued in classroom situations. Thomas Markham (2011) describes PBL as ‘PBL integrates knowing and doing. Students learn knowledge and elements of the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce results that matter. PBL students take advantage of digital tools to produce high-quality, collaborative products. PBL refocuses education on the student, not the curriculum— a shift mandated by the global world, which rewards intangible assets such as drive, passion, creativity, empathy, and resiliency. These cannot be taught out of a textbook, but must be activated through experience.’ The draft of the National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 India has also recognised the need to incorporate this approach in the school curriculum across the breadth of the country.

Why is PBL important?

PBL is important because it places the textual content in real-world scenarios and encourages students to invoke their cognitive skills, broadens their existing knowledge base, enhance their creative skills and draw on their lessons across several disciplines and practically apply them. The promise of seeing an actual impact of learning becomes the motivation for choosing this approach. PBL has now come to replace other traditional and dated models of instruction such as lecture, textbook-workbook driven activities and emphasises ‘inquiry’ as the preferred delivery method for key topics in the curriculum. But this passive recollection and regurgitation of facts are not enough to equip today’s students for the challenges of the real world. Using a combination of fundamental skills (Reading, Writing, and Mathematical Ability) and 21st-century skills (Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical thinking, Digital Literacy, Citizenship, Scientific Temperament, Ethics, Social Responsibility, etc) students need to become directors and managers of their learning guided by a skilled facilitator.

In addition to this, PBL

  • allows a student to demonstrate his or her capabilities while working independently.
  • shows the student’s ability to apply desired skills such as doing research or solving complex problems.
  • develops the student’s ability to work with his or her peers, building teamwork and group discussion skills.
  • allows the teacher to learn more about the student as a person.
  • helps the teacher communicate in progressive and meaningful ways with the student or a group of students on a range of issues.
  • promotes lifelong learning

How can I implement PBL in my classroom?

PBL as an approach is very flexible and can be customised to fit any classroom scenario and can be woven seamlessly into a daily lesson plan for any curricular subject. Traditionally, we have only seen projects to be an extra or add-on to a unit or a lesson that finds its place in the garbage dump at the end of the unit or semester, an approach with Dayna Laur calls the ‘garbage project’ approach. But we need to understand that projects are not just for ornamentation but they are critical to building the foundational understanding of students towards their course materials. We need to keep in mind that the end goal is to make students producers of content rather than mere consumers of it. At the same time, projects need not overtake the curriculum. So, there must be a healthy balance of learning between the two.

Although projects are the primary vehicle for instruction in project-based learning, there are no commonly shared criteria for what constitutes an acceptable project. Projects may vary in the depth of the questions tasked, the purpose of the learning goals, the content and structure of the activity, and guidance from the teacher. The role of projects in the overall curriculum is also open to interpretation. Projects can guide the entire curriculum or simply consist of a few hands-on activities based on a specific unit from the course content. They might be multidisciplinary (for lower grades) or could focus on a single subject (for middle and higher grades). Some projects involve the whole class, while others are done in small groups or individually. So, there is no set rule in what should constitute a proper project. Artifacts may include a variety of media such as writings, art, drawings, three-dimensional representations, videos, photography, podcasts, or other technology-based presentations. Sylvia Chard, an education researcher, opines that ‘One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. It’s an in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of children’s attention and effort.’

How to write a PBL prompt

PBLs are units of self-directed learning from students’ doing or making throughout the unit. If students learn to take accountability for their learning, they will form the basis for the way they will work with others in their adult lives.

Consequently, effective PBL prompts need to be written in a manner that is able to justify all that PBL promises to do. A clear, comprehensive PBL:

  • is centred around an open-ended driving question or challenge.
  • produces a need to know essential content and skills.
  • fosters a spirit of inquiry to learn and/or create something new.
  • requires critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication, often known as 21st-century skills.
  • permits some degree of student voice and choice.
  • incorporates feedback and revision.
  • outcomes in a visibly presented product or presentation

For instance, in an economics class, you could provide a company’s data to students and ask them to conduct a mock audit. Or in a History class, you could ask students to find out about a museum, visit it, and duplicate their favourite art form from it. The possibilities are endless, you just need to be able to ensure the spirit of deep inquiry in an authentic context. You can also ask students to visit a nearby NGO and design a fund-raising campaign for the same. 

Next Steps

PBL relies heavily on learning groups. Student groups determine their projects, and in so doing, they engage student voices by encouraging students to take full responsibility for their learning. This is what makes PBL constructivist. Students work together to accomplish specific goals and are constantly making choices on how to obtain, display, negotiate with or manipulate information. Technology makes it possible for students to think actively about the choices they make and execute. The teacher’s role in PBL is that of a facilitator. Consequently, they do not relinquish control of the classroom or student learning, but rather develop an atmosphere of shared responsibility. The teacher must regulate student success with sporadic and interim goals to ensure student projects remain focused and students have a deep understanding of the concepts being investigated. The students are held accountable for these goals through ongoing feedback and assessments. The ongoing assessment and feedback are essential to ensure the student stays within the scope of the central challenge in the PBL and the core content standards the project is trying to unpack.

To conclude in the words of Thomas Markham, ‘PBL integrates knowing and doing. Students learn knowledge and elements of the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce results that matter. PBL students take advantage of digital tools to produce high-quality, collaborative products. PBL refocuses education on the student, not the curriculum—a shift mandated by the global world, which rewards intangible assets such as drive, passion, creativity, empathy, and resiliency. These cannot be taught out of a textbook, but must be activated through experience.’

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