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Aspects of Effective Project-Based Learning
Mar 30, 2018
Editor’s note: Nicholas Provenzano, the Nerdy Teacher, discusses his experiences with project-based learning and offers insights into what makes project-based learning effective in the classroom.
Originally posted September 28, 2017
Project-based learning (PBL) is a topic many teachers are interested in, but are unsure of how to implement or understand if it is working. Long before my Epic Romeo and Juliet Project, the first major project I created was during my student teaching 10 years ago. I thought it would be a great idea to hold a mock trial in my class after reading Huck Finn. I wanted students to put Mark Twain on trial for being a racist. At the time, there was some uproar across the nation on whether or not Huck should be taught in schools. We had discussed the topic in class and I thought this would be an engaging way for students to explore both sides of the issue and make up their minds.
As I look back at the project, I notice all of the factors that led to deep understanding. After much thought, I have deconstructed PBL into the five parts that make it effective in the classroom.
Ownership is key. For this project, the students were not listening to me on why Twain was or was not a racist, they were showing me and the rest of class what they thought. They were invested in winning their argument. They knew that their work was going to determine if he was guilty or not. Although I gave the assignment, students were in charge the rest of the way. It was their project and they wanted to do it. When students feel they own what they are doing, they will work harder. When the audience is larger, they want to impress everyone. These are not crazy ideas; they are the results of owning the work they are doing. Ownership is a major factor in the value of PBL.
Creativity is another major part of PBL and is closely linked with ownership. Students were allowed to be creative in their work as a lawyer or witness. Witnesses needed to stay within character, but could add their own elements on the witness stand. Allowing the students to create gives them an increased sense of ownership.
Another part of PBL is collaboration. Students were working with each other trying to decide the best plan of attack. Witnesses would meet with their lawyers and discuss the questions they were going to ask and how they should dress. The jury worked on group projects researching the previous public opinions on Twain and his writing. Students were sharing ideas freely with one another. I had three sections of American Literature at the time, so I had three trials running. Lawyers would help students in the other classes and trash talk the opposing lawyers as well. It was all in good fun, but the collaboration had students working hard with one another to accomplish this goal.
4. Critical Thinking
Depending on how you set up your project, critical thinking is also an important part of PBL. With my Twain trial, students needed to think about both sides of the argument. Students needed to prepare their witnesses for potential cross-examination questions. They needed to anticipate problems each witness presented and be prepared to counter them. In a world where homework can be tedious and memorization rules supreme, PBL is a great way to get kids thinking critically.
Lastly, PBL can be fun! It seems obvious, but I have seen many projects that are very tedious. They have kids go through the motions and leave very little room for fun or creativity. Projects are a chance for students to break the regular routine of reading and writing in some classes. Most kids are excited to do a project because they finally see it as a chance to express themselves in a format other than a test or essay. The fun comes from the freedom students feel. Working with their friends (collaboration), taking charge of their learning (ownership), solving real problems (critical thinking), and allowing students to create (creativity) all lead to students learning in a fun environment.
The Nerdy Teacher LLC is run by Nicholas Provenzano. He is an award winning educator and bestselling author who has traveled the world promoting best practices in education. He has been featured on CNN, Education Week, The New York Times, and other media outlets. He has presented internationally at conferences and worked closely with educators around the world to support their educational goals. He is a Google Certified Educator, Raspberry Pi Certified Educator, littleBits Educational Ambassador, and holds other certifications with other companies. You can find him @TheNerdyTeacher.
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