Traditional American classrooms tend to fit a particular mold: Students face the front of the class where teachers lecture.
Students take notes, finish assignments at home, and hope to memorize enough information just long enough to pass a test.
Engagement and passion are often in short supply — among students and teachers. The system does not necessarily accommodate all learning styles, and even those who fair well may be missing out on other important work-life lessons, like how to creatively solve problems, stay focused, work as part of a team, and organize their thoughts in a way others will understand.
This is where project-based learning enters the equation.
What is Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning, or PBL, is generating a great deal of buzz in the world of education, and is often portrayed as an alternative to passive learning and rote memorization. If traditional education is classical, PBL is jazz. In a PBL classroom, teachers present problems that students must solve together in groups. Rather than reciting facts and hoping some of them stick, teachers give students the resources they need to research concepts and apply them in a practical form. Mistakes are allowed and even expected in the course of meaningful learning. The result: Students become active rather than passive learners and build important workplace skills. Of course, all of this requires a great deal of planning, a healthy dose of flexibility and an environment that supports collaboration. Here are four essential elements of a successful PBL classroom.
4 must-follow rules for designing a PBL classroom
1. Learning Spaces Help Set The Tone
One of the defining characteristics of a PBL classroom is the emphasis on group work: Students work with their peers to solve problems. That means the space must be organized in a way that supports collaboration — neat lines of forward-facing desks are the enemy. In a multi-disciplinary elementary classroom, portable floor mats or cushions are an excellent alternative to traditional desks, at least during group work periods.
Teachers still need a central location where all students can congregate to hear stories, lessons or project instructions, but there should be enough room beyond that for break-out group work. Older students, on the other hand, often need large work surfaces and comfortable chairs. Large round or rectangular tables are ideal, but if budgets are limited, teachers can simply push desks together in small clusters.
One key? Keep your content area and common project types in mind. Small writing desks may be okay for English students, but science students probably need large surfaces that accommodate lab work. Digital products will require requisite technology access, as will mobile learning approaches, and community-based projects can benefit from social media access and blogging tools in addition to local periodicals, and even space for face-to-face interaction with community members. You might find online tools like Classroom Architect helpful during the classroom planning process.
2. Think Information Access
PBL is not a paper-pushing style of learning. Students need access to chalk or white boards, reference books, and art or presentation supplies. Young children are often spatial and tactile learners, so it helps to divide these multi-disciplinary classrooms into subject-themed areas that organize and display manipulatives, learning materials and other supplies.
Classrooms for older students tend to be subject-dedicated, so teachers might consider reserving an area for rotating, lesson-specific materials in addition to the usual year-round supplies. Whatever their grade or subject, remember that PBL classrooms are by definition unpredictable and, to a degree, student-guided. You may not know what direction a particular project will take, so try to keep a wide breadth of materials on-hand to support rather than limit creativity.
While most American classrooms are increasingly “plugged in,” PBL classrooms prominently feature — and make full use of — educational technology. One of the key goals of PBL is to help students develop real-world skills, and today’s professionals conduct research online, use spreadsheets or databases to organize information, and use video-editing and presentation software to transmit ideas. As Maine-based PBL teacher Susan McCray told Edutopia, “I can’t imagine designing the curriculum that I do without being able to click onto the Internet and get all the materials and resources that are available, and I can’t imagine my students not being able to do that either.”
Remember, though, that technology can quickly become a distraction. Internet use should be monitored, and IT specialists should inspect glitchy or sluggish computers that detract from the learning experience. Teachers should also provide guidance on the appropriate use of technology in the grand scheme of a project’s goals.
4. See Yourself As The Ultimate Resource
Perhaps the most important element of a PBL classroom is its teacher. Unlike traditional classrooms PBL classrooms are by nature unpredictable and, to an extent, student-guided. Teachers must be flexible, supportive and engaged in the learning process, even if they sometimes feel like spectators. They must introduce projects’ themes and goals, ensure students have all the resources and materials they need, and keep students — and their classrooms — organized. They must also know when to teach and when to observe, and then have the restraint to step back and let students make mistakes now and again
Words to the wise: Take the PBL plunge.
The decision to transition to a PBL classroom, even on a part-time basis, can be intimidating for any teacher, but especially those for whom PBL is uncharted territory. As PBL gains more traction, expect it to become a more integral part of teacher training. Until then, most PBL teachers learn through continuing education programs, conferences, books and online resources like the Buck Institute of Education. However you get started, consider your experiment in PBL to be your own personal project subject to the same philosophies you intend to teach. That means plan carefully, remain flexible and, perhaps most importantly, expect and forgive mistakes.