Project-based learning that is student-centered works if it is meaningful work. According to the article “Seven Essentials for Project-Based learning” on Education Leadership:
A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.
It doesn’t matter the age of the learner, every learner gets more involved in the process if the task at hand means something to them and there is a purpose for their work. Let’s look at purpose.
- Teacher one gives an assignment for their students to write a paper. Usually, the student hands the finished paper in to the teacher who then spends the evening reading and grading the papers.
- Teacher two shares a topic or asks students to find a topic that is meaningful to them and write why it is meaningful. Students generate questions about their topic, come up with an opinion piece, and then share their writing with their peers who provided feedback. They use a rubric to grade each other and themselves.
Which do you find more meaningful and engaging?
Wanting to know more
Students come to school curious about the world. They want to know more. If the teacher can let students pursue their interests and what they are curious about, then the classroom changes. How about the teacher bringing in a photo or local topic like a polluted nearby creek and letting students discuss it? Then they could go to the creek, take pictures, do research about the creek, interview water experts, etc. What they could find out is that they can make a difference somehow. They can research the problem, find out how a polluted creek like this one could impact the environment and life in the creek, get the right people involved to clean up the creek, and even pick up trash around the creek themselves.
What about the standards?
When I work with teachers they are told to meet the standards, follow the pacing guide, and use the textbook. When you are moving to a student-centered classroom, you are slowly changing the way you teach. You can still meet the standards and cover most of the curriculum. Instead of trying to “cover” everything, there may be another way to involve your students as co-designers of their learning.
- Show your students the standards — right from the beginning. Explain that they will need to meet these standards with the project. Projects also cover multiple disciplines. If you focus on creeks for 4th grade (CA Science – Earth Science – Water), then you are also meeting Investigation and Experimentation, Language Arts > Writing Strategies > Research and Technology) and probably more.
- Tell them that you need their input as co-designers so their learning is more meaningful to them. Mention that you normally teach the lesson like this but would like to have more of a student voice. Have them review the topic, the standards, and come up with questions based on this information.
Good driving questions help focus the project
We are all born curious. Most children want to learn something by first asking a question. “Where does rain come from?” “Why does a hummingbird flap its wings so fast?” The questions lead to more questions. If you think about the creek and pollution, maybe some of the questions might be “how did the creek get polluted?” or “why do people throw their trash in the creek?” or “how does the pollution affect the fish and other life in the creek?”
A good driving question gets to the heart of the topic or problem. The creek is polluted. Life in the creek is impacted. The environment is affected by the pollution. Sometimes a good driving question is a call to action. “What can we do to stop the pollution in the creek?” The other questions asked before supported this question.
Students working in groups
This is the piece that teachers find difficult to manage or coordinate. Do you let students choose their groups or group by topic or do you choose the groups for them?
The first time you ever do a project-based learning activity, be kind to yourself. First time, you choose the groups. Each group will have roles for each person but you decide on the roles. Let them choose who will do what. Some students will take on multiple roles and help each other. Some may not.
I’m going to go into more detail in later posts about how to set up groups, designing questions, etc. The main thing I wanted to get across in this post was to focus on meaningful work and purposeful projects. If your students, no matter what age, feel they can make a difference, they are more motivated to learn, to share, to write, and to present.