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The Essentials for Project-Based Learning

Janelle Cox

Whether you’re new to teaching or a seasoned veteran, there’s a very good chance that you have heard of Project-Based Learning. Much like STEM education is an integral part of our children’s future, Project-Based Learning builds on students’ competencies in order for them to be successful in the 21st century.

In order for our youth to be able to live in this new digital age, and compete with the other industrialized nations, we must give them the right tools. Project-Based Learning is a teaching method that can do just that. Students gain knowledge and skills by investigating and responding to complex questions and real-world problems. With Project-Based Learning, students build 21st century skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and using technology, all of which will help them in the workplace and as well as their lives.

What Does Project-Based Learning Research Say?

So many teachers are trying this new approach out in their classrooms because there has been a ton of research that confirms what an effective and enjoyable way to learn PBL is. Teachers love how PBL:

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  • Engages students and incorporates real-world situations.
  • Helps students retain information longer so they are able to apply it to new situations.
  • Builds a deeper understanding of concepts.
  • Builds student confidence so they are able to communicate ideas and work collaboratively.
  • Allows students to solve problems and become creative innovators.
  • Incorporates modern technology.

The Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning

Before we get into the elements that make Project-Based Learning so essential, let’s first discuss what it is not.

Remember when you were in school and had to make a diorama or a poster to correlate with your book report? Back then these menial tasks were considered your school project. Not only were they not creative, they made it really hard for anyone to stay engaged or even motivated.

Since then, we have learned that the process that students take while working on a project is much more important than the end result. When students understand a project’s educational purpose, it becomes more meaningful to them, which in turn leads to student engagement.

Now that we know what Project-Based Learning is not (a simple menial task that doesn’t include any cognitive engagement), we can talk about what the essential elements of PBL include. Here are the eight essential elements presented from the Buck Institute of Education.

1. Significant Content.

2. 21st-Century Skills.

3. In-Depth Inquiry.

4. A Driving Question.

5. A Need to Know.

6. Student Voice and the ability to Choose.

7. Reflection and Revision.

8. An Audience.

Taking a concept that you want students to learn and turning it into Project-Based Learning takes some effort. First you must find significant content (may be derived from the Common Core Standards). Then you must determine how you will build 21st century experiences where students will use skills like creative thinking, problem solving, innovation, and collaboration.

Next you must find a driving question that is open-ended to get students intrigued. It mustn’t be a question that students can easily look up on the Internet. Students will need to know that they will be challenged, and they need to know the reason for undertaking this project. The question needs to be crafted in a way that students will use in-depth inquiry to ask innovative questions and find solutions.

Once you pique your students’ interest, give them a voice and a choice. Make the project meaningful for students by giving them the opportunity to choose how they will present their project, or what technology they will use. Allow them to choose who they will work with or how they will create their project. In order to find a solution to the driving question, students will have to reflect and revise throughout the project.

The final element is presenting their project to a public audience. This is where they use their 21st century skills of communication to present their project through either (a) the use of technology, or (b) a formal presentation.

Although implementing Project-Based Learning into your classroom may seem like a challenge, just remember all of the benefits that are backed by science. When teachers create an environment that gives students a voice and a choice, as well as keeps them engaged while using important 21st century skills, then you know it is all worth it. 

What do you think about Project-Based Learning? Is a new fad or so you think it is here to stay? Share with us in the comment section below, we would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators