Most teachers know that children are more invested in learning when it’s fun and relevant. What they might not know is that children learn better in fun and engaging environments. Project-based learning (PBL) offers educators a way to engage students in meaningful and challenging investigations that meet curriculum goals and make learning feel like fun, not work. How can teachers bring meaningful investigations into the classroom? Here’s our quick-start guide for project-based learning lessons.
The PBL approach urges students to create an end product and publish it. This final result is a powerful incentive to keep learning and keep trying. It also provides tangible evidence that students have mastered the goals of the project.
Many educators, however, mistakenly believe that all projects must involve building. They’re reluctant to involve their students in endless crafts and robot-building projects. Building things is just one component of PBL. Ultimately, a quality project is anything that involves students in sustained investigation and inquiry. Some examples might include:
- Trying to change a school policy.
- Setting up a community volunteer project.
- Devising a scientific question and a strategy for answering it.
- Creating a personal project. For instance, a child with insomnia might decide to investigate strategies for sleeping better at night.
Devising Quality Projects
With hundreds of websites, apps, and curricula devoted to project-based learning, busy teachers don’t have to design their own projects. However, many teachers relish the chance to make learning relevant by creating projects that address their students’ needs, desires, goals, and personalities. Some questions you can ask that may help you design and implement excellent projects include:
- How are current curriculum goals relevant to students’ lives? For example, consider how geometry might help children paint a room or design a house for a pet.
- What are my students most interested in?
- What do my students complain about? The right project can address these complaints.
- Is anything going on in the surrounding world that is relevant to our curriculum? For example, an election is a great chance to learn about civics.
- Can I integrate curriculum goals from several subjects into a single project? It’s often easy to incorporate math into a biology project, and to then make that project relevant to civics class by discussing political issues related to the environment.
- Is there a community event or project I can involve my students in?
- Is the school district pushing a specific type of learning? For instance, are field trips the new big thing? Or does my principal want students to spend more time outside? Consider how you can meet these goals with the right project.
Asking Questions: A Hallmark of Excellent Curricula
The best lessons encourage creative, critical thinking. No matter what students do with their lives, they’ll need to think critically about everything. From asking doctors intelligent questions before pursuing medical treatment to exploring alternative ways to solve a business problem, creative and critical thinking will never become irrelevant.
Project-based learning supports critical thinking by encouraging students to think on their feet. Asking questions is vital to this endeavor. Good projects answer questions that matter to students. Rather than creating artificial questions, consider what your students care about most.
The Role of the Investigation
The best project-based lesson plans are based on investigations of issues that matter to students. The following steps can help you craft excellent investigations:
- Begin with an open-ended, exploratory question. This should be a question students have asked you or that they care about. For example, high schoolers might want to know if climate change is real and how they can stop it. Preschoolers might be interested in learning why the sky is blue.
- Research the question. Teachers may need to do some advanced research to direct the project. The bulk of the research and investigation, however, should fall to students. Allow them to choose how they research the topic, while channeling their efforts in the right direction.
- Break the question down into different pieces for further investigation. For instance, teens investigating climate change might begin by researching the issue, then develop a list of project recommendations, and conclude with a group project they can embark on to reduce their carbon footprint.
- Create different ways to visualize the questions.
- Compare and contrast relationships related to the question.
The steps may shift depending on the project you choose. Older students will likely spend more time investigating and less time visualizing, while younger students may need more assistance comparing and contrasting. The important thing is that students are deeply involved in every step of the learning process.
Say goodbye to boring lessons. Get your students involved in meaningful investigations that offer insights into their real lives. You can meet curriculum goals without boring your students to death. Project-based learning is the antidote to burnout, dull lesson plans, and student disengagement.