Many schools across the country are introducing a new way of teaching kids key concepts: project-based learning or PBL. “PBL asks students to investigate an open-ended question and apply their knowledge for an authentic purpose,” says Suzie Boss, author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real World Projects in the Digital Age. Imagine a math class where students ditch the desk and hit the baseball diamond, instructed to design a new field with specific measurements. Or, an advanced English class where students take on the roles of rival reporters, asked to create the opinions page of their school newspaper.
Boss says well-designed projects involve teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking, which are goals of 21st-century learning. And they will also be the goals of 21st-century employers, says Wayne Wheatley, a science teacher at Detroit Country Day School. “More and more employers are searching for ‘team players’ and employees who can be given a task and a deadline and then use their creative abilities to solve problems," he says. A project, once viewed as an extra activity complementing a lesson, is now “the centerpiece of the curriculum,” says Boss.
But what exactly does your child do in a classroom incorporating project-based learning? Philip Cicero, an adjunct professor of education at Adelphi University, describes the approach as one in which a team of four to five students come together to solve a problem. Your teen may work with classmates to build a robot, or your child may conduct tests in a lab with a real-life chemist to test a theorem.
“A parent who walks into a project-based classroom the first time may be surprised at what's going on,” says Boss. “They will not see kids sitting in neat rows, learning the same content at the same pace.” Teachers, too, move about the classroom, observing students and making suggestions. The projects, then, are student-centered, says Cicero, with the teacher acting as a facilitator and coach. “Students are responsible for identifying resources and reviewing research applicable to the problem or theme of the project,” says Cicero. Your child may be asked to use a computer to gather data, or must conduct her own experiment to find a solution.
With project-based learning, student engagement is high, says Cicero, and your child will discover and learn by building on previous learning experiences. This kind of learning is typically motivating and relevant for the students, he says, and takes place over a period of time. Once a project is completed, students can present their findings and respond, often as experts themselves, to questions posed by their peers. “The students not only learn content, but also develop creativity skills and learn how to cooperate with each other,” says Cicero.
But does every child benefit? “ Projects offer flexibility to meet the needs of diverse learners,” says Boss. “Students start at different places when they begin a project.” Each student, though, brings something to the table – a unique skill or perspective, for instance. But students who are used to waiting for directions may find this type of learning challenging, says Boss, and may find it hard to be more active learners. On the flip side, kids who prefer working independently may not enjoy working in a team. “But collaboration is a critical skill,” says Boss, “and the ‘real’ world will be full of situations that require teamwork.”
Wheatley says a student who takes her grades more seriously than her partners may suffer from this kind of learning, too. “Inevitably, group dynamics get in the way of the project, as partners fight over who is doing more work than the other,” says Wheatley. He grades his students as individuals even though they work in groups. “My rubrics always include skills such as responsibility, teamwork, and the ability to solve problems without creating new ones,” says Wheatley.
“I truly can't think of anyone not able to benefit from it,” says Cicero. If done correctly, he says, your child’s teacher can adapt a project and the responsibilities given to your child and her classmates to make the assignment appropriate for all. Many educators agree, of course, that a balance between teaching real-world, team-building skills and meeting curriculum standards must be preserved.
What can you do to support the project-based learning approach and apply this kind of learning at home? Here are some tips:
Introduce risk taking. Your child may be concerned with succeeding at a project the first time around. But project-based learning is all about trial-and-error and learning-by-doing. To encourage this environment, ask your child open-ended questions rather than give instructions when she works on a project. Let her discover solutions for herself – even if it means stumbling upon wrong answers first.
Enforce a team mentality. Parents can especially apply project-based learning in a household of siblings, says Wheatley. “Too many kids are treated as VIPs in their own homes, rather than as a member of the team,” he says. “The older they get, the more involved they should be in family decisions about vacations, budgets, and home improvements.” Boss adds, “ From planning a vacation to planting a garden, family activities offer real-world opportunities to put project strategies to work.”
Make textbook-to-world connections. Bring your child’s homework assignments to life when possible with occasional, unforced comments. If your child recently learned about photosynthesis, and you’re picnicking in the park, look at the leaves of plants and remind her of this process. You don’t have to drill her with a lesson; simply helping to make connections about the ideas she learns is enough.
Don’t solve your child’s problems. If siblings are caught in an argument, Wheatley recommends parents allow conflicts to occur to encourage children to solve them. “When parents or teachers intervene, the only message it sends is that they were unable to do the task they were given,” says Wheatley.
Bottom line? “Talk with your kids about the projects they are doing at school,” says Boss. “Ask questions that get them to think about what they're doing and why it matters.” Finally, familiarize yourself with the curriculum, so you know about the projects in which your child participates.