Having covered the why, the what and the how of Project-Based Learning (PBL) in the previous parts of our blog posts series, it is now time to start breaking down the process for bringing this instructional approach in our classrooms. In this installment, we start with Stage 1: Launching PBL.
Project-Based Learning (PBL) is inquiry-driven instruction in its very best. And although this is appealing, and we’d love to bring it in our classrooms as soon as possible, it has its prerequisites. Firstly, it demands a change of mind about the role that projects play in everyday lessons. Secondly, we have to design the whole process in advance.
PBL “is considered to be a particular type of inquiry-based learning where the context of learning is provided through authentic questions and problems within real-world practices that lead to meaningful learning experiences” (Kokotsaki, Menzies, & Wiggins, 2016). In other words: we have to make sure that the topics and questions involved in the project are intriguing for our students, and relevant to their experiences, otherwise we are compromising their learning outcomes.
We can divide the PBL process into three major stages: 1) launching, 2) monitoring, and 3) evaluating student projects. We can also break down these stages to smaller pieces to gain full control of our instruction:
Let’s start by tackling Stage 1, the launch of our project-based instruction.
Stage 1: Launching PBL
A project in the center of instruction means that it can’t just be the “dessert” but it also shouldn’t be the “appetizer.” Students must be familiarized with the content of the knowledge you approach. Having in mind the topic we plan to teach through PBL, we begin by initiating a rather general discussion around it. Our intention is to stimulate their respective prior knowledge, establish links to other subjects, and bring personal interests into light.
2. Topic selection
A topic sets the focus on the specific unit elements we want to teach and works as an “umbrella” that covers them all. It should be both precise and wide at the same time: students should feel that there is room for discovery, but also sense the borders of the topic.
This is the right moment to start giving students ownership of their project: have two or three different topics ready, so that they can collectively decide which one of these motivates them the most and has the greatest potential for exploration. “Involving students in the decision-making process is beneficial because they will feel more involved in the project on the whole” (Habók & Nagy, 2016).
3. Identifying a driving question
For each topic, we should also have two or three driving questions from which students can choose. The driving question refers to the specific issue that will be addressed by the end-product of their project.
A driving question should be open enough for in-depth exploration but not too wide in content, so students will stay focused. It may seem that it is just one question, but there is plenty of space for inquiry within it. In fact, it is far more complicated to answer one driving question than to tackle a list of basic information questions or problems with known methodologies (Wurdinger, Haar, Hugg, & Bezon, 2007).
If you have a small class, every team or individual can pick the driving question of their choice. In a large class, though, it would be hard to monitor several different driving questions at once. Let’s not forget: through these projects, we are, all the while, addressing our curriculum goals. We must stay focused on the specific content and skills that we need to cover, and multiple driving questions may be disorienting.
While launching PBL, don’t forget that this approach relies on the use of technology and students reaching out to global communities. You can give them a head start by creating the project topic on the 100mentors platform so they can submit their questions. This process is the beginning of their inquiry. Experts around the world can give students insights and suggestions for their projects, for their work to touch base with the real world.
Habók, A., & Nagy, J. (2016). In-service teachers’ perceptions of project-based learning. SpringerPlus, 5(1), 1–14.
Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools, 19(3), 267–277.
Wurdinger, S., Haar, J., Hugg, R., & Bezon, J. (2007). A qualitative study using project-based learning in a mainstream middle school. Improving Schools, 10(2), 150–161.