When I was in the 7th grade, my science teacher assigned our class a project which combined curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. A fictional town was in trouble. Every year, it hosted a popular fishing competition which helped provide much-needed revenue for the local businesses. However, this year something had killed all the fish in the local lake! Our job, as researchers, was to find out what had killed the fish, what to do about it, and how to help the town recover financially.
After a few experiments and some scientific sleuthing, we discovered that runoff from the local fields was responsible for poisoning the water. The farmers, it turned out, had used fertilizer that was toxic to the local fish. That solved one problem, but how did we help the town recoup the money it had lost? Well, one brilliant student (me) suggested the town host a new competition, a canoe and kayaking race! That way when the town recovered it would have TWO new sources of income.
Working with my peers, we presented our findings to our teacher along with a detailed plan for bringing in potential investors. It took a lot of math, a lot of reading, some scientific tinkering, and plenty of cooperation, but our group earned an A+ for all our work.
Needless to say, I believe in the power of project-based learning.
Hands-on Learning, Even at a Distance
Of course, these days most project-based learning has run into a bit of a problem. COVID-19 has shuttered most schools and forced classrooms to go virtual. It’s hard to engage in hands-on, cooperative learning when everything is hands-off and at a distance. Still, even with the current hurdles, PBL remains one of the best methods for students to engage in rigorous problem-solving and social-emotional growth. Distance learning hasn’t disabled effective PBL, it’s just changed the way we present it to our students.
Writing for Edutopia, Michael McDowell shares her commitment for making project-based learning work during distance-learning. Writes McDowell,
“…there is an opportunity here to give students a chance to discuss the challenges of their own environment, the barrage of news they face daily, and the core content they need for long-term success. One of the best options to meet these demands is for students to engage in rigorous problem- or project-based learning (PBL)—an approach that ensures students develop high rigor and experience high relevance by solving problems or completing tasks in a remote or face-to-face environment.”
So, where should teachers begin?
Here are a few simple strategies to remember,
- Start with a Question: Real engagement begins with a question. “Can a cookbook save your life?” “Can a few cents revitalize a community?” Even in a remote environment, these questions and wonderings can drive students to search for answers. Begin your lesson by asking students a thoughtful question and don’t concern yourself with the bells and whistles. Sometimes the simplest strategies work best of all.
- Focus on Feedback: Always offer feedback that is timely, specific, and actionable. When students can connect their prior knowledge with to what is being taught, they’re more likely to focus on what they are learning and retain the information they acquire. Remote feedback can be offered in a number of ways, from comments in Googles docs, to one-on-one video calls, to having other students provide constructive feedback in a chat box. Best of all, it’s a chance for students to practice their interpersonal and self-awareness skills.
- Remember the Growth Mindset: Project-based learning is all about cultivating a growth mindset and encouraging your students to invest in their own learning. This can be done virtually as well as in person. Reflective exercises like journal writing or self-evaluations can help them cultivate a better awareness of their personal development. Give students the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned, then challenge them to apply their knowledge to real-world problems.
Bring the World to Your Students
Virtual learning will never replace physical classrooms. However, that doesn’t mean the lessons we teach over Zoom can’t leave a lasting impact. Project-based learning is flexible enough to adapt to our new reality. All we as teachers need to do is remember the fundamentals that PBL is built upon – curious minds, constructive feedback, and positive reflection. When we put these at the front of our lesson, we give students the tools they need to grow. So, don’t stress over distance learning, PBL still has everything it needs to be memorable, meaningful, and fun!