Four years ago I was hired at a newly formed Project Based Learning ( PBL) school. I remember sitting in my interview being asked about a project I would develop and struggling through the response. I was vaguely aware of PBL but had no idea how to develop and plan a project. Luckily, that summer our whole staff went through a multiple day training on how to develop and implement a project. Project Based Learning involves creating a multiple week project based around an open ended question, called a driving question. During the project, students become researchers, testers, makers, writers and take on collaborative roles in groups to develop a final end project that they present in some manner.
More and more I read about high schools and middle schools turning to PBL, in my own district is it touted as a way to differentiate in the advanced learning programs. Recently there was even a movie put about High Tech High which is entirely project based. If you haven’t seen Mostly Likely to Succeed, I can’t recommend it enough. All of this is great and I know and believe that PBL can engage and benefit our youngest learners. PBL is a way to access and engage ALL of our students regardless of age or ability.
Four years ago when Molly and my other teammates developed our first projects, we relied heavily on information from the Buck Institute. We still go back to this resource time and time again when we get stuck because even after four years PBL can be challenging as a teacher.
A critical aspect to PBL is developing a strong, concise driving question. This question guides the entire project and needs to be open ended and allow students multiple access points into the curriculum.This fall, we developed a new project with the driving question: How can we build a city in our classroom? This project is based on Washington State Social Studies Learning Standards and incorporates Common Core Language Arts and Math state standards. The big ideas behind it are that cities are places where people choose to live and work together. And that cities are made up of many different systems that function for the greater good.
After introducing the question, and brainstorming what we already know about cities, we began building in our classroom. At first students were fixated on our cities landmarks, the sports fields and the Space Needle. I let them build these within their PBL groups with various tools ( legos, keva blocks, magna tiles, knex etc..) and then I called them back to the rug and introduced the concept of a system. From that definition, my students realized their cities were not complete systems-they had parts of a city but most of the group’s work lacked roads, stores and other critical aspects of a city system. They began again and went back to their groups and began to build more complete cities, talking all the while about the work they were doing to ensure their city was a complete system. Through these conversations, students are learning how to collaborate, how to have learning conversations that involve speaking and listening as well as how to work through conflicts together. They then wrote about their cities on their student blogs after we had finished building for the day.
While core academics such as literacy and social studies are easily integrated into projects, Molly and I both believe the most imporant skills students learn through these projects are 21st century learning skills such as collaboration, researching, critical thinking and perseverance. They learn how to be flexible when their plan doesn’t work the first time. And they learn how to revise their ideas as they gain new information and input from peers. During our debriefing after our first day, one student explained “Well I had to be flexible because I couldn’t find the pieces I wanted to make my hospital so I kept looking for others that would work as well.” I was impressed by this comment but not surprised, these sort of conversations happen naturally during PBL. In Molly’s classroom, students did self reflections on paper and you can see that students came up with many different ways to be more successful in the future.
Our city project is just beginning and every one of our first graders is excited and about this project. We will be learning from many guest speakers and are hoping to visit many parts of our city for research. My class this year, like every year has a wide range of abilities and needs. Every morning when my students enter the classroom, they eagerly check our schedule to see when we will be working on PBL. Project Based Learning is a powerful learning tool that should done in every classroom with every student.