A fifth-grade class is hard at work. Posted on the board is the question the students plan to answer: How would my life be different if I lived in Colonial America? But the students are not sitting behind textbooks with hands raised, facing the teacher. Instead, one group of students is browsing a basket of nonfiction books on the topic. Another group is in the technology corner, wearing headphones as they watch videos about Colonial Williamsburg. Other students are sitting with the teacher as he guides the reading of an article on games from the Colonial period. All of these students will read and research. They will create exhibits to demonstrate their learning and collaborate to transform their classroom into a museum of Colonial America. This class is moving full steam ahead into Project-Based Learning, or PBL.

What is PBL?

In short, PBL is an approach to teaching and learning in which students master subject-area content through guided exploration and research. Teachers begin with a driving question that relates to grade-level standards. In elementary classrooms, the driving question is often tied to social studies or science content. For example: How does pollution affect our community? How did the Native Americans who lived in our area use its natural resources? Driving questions can also be phrased as challenges, such as: Design a plan to improve our playground for $500. Create a campaign to persuade kids to drink more water. Do you see the possibilities for weaving in environmental studies, history, economics, and biology? Driving questions and challenges should be relevant to students’ lives and should get them fired up.

Once students are hooked, they will:

  • read a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts about the topic, both print and online;
  • collaborate with peers to share information and ideas;
  • create products or artifacts (e.g., written reports, slideshows, art pieces);
  • revise their products based on feedback from peers and teachers; and
  • present their products (e.g., displays, presentations, skits)

Why do PBL?

The research is clear—students who participate in PBL are more engaged and enthusiastic about learning; therefore, they are more likely to retain what they learn. But if that’s not enough, consider these points about PBL:

  • Allows teachers to address some of those “harder to reach” standards relating to research, speaking, and listening. You will be able to integrate all domains of the ELA standards into your projects—Reading: Literature and Informational, Writing, Speaking/Listening, and Language/Conventions.
  • Allows students to practice 21st-century skills. When engaged in PBL, students will have opportunities to practice all four Cs— collaboration, creation, communication, and critical thinking.
  • Shifts the role of the teacher from dispenser of knowledge to facilitator of learning. This is an essential feature of a classroom centered around critical thinking; PBL is a great vehicle to begin making this shift. Relinquishing some control to students might feel disorganized and daunting at first, but it is also necessary in order to adequately prepare our students for the challenges they will face in the future.

If this seems overwhelming, remember: PBL doesn’t happen all day, every day. Direct instruction continues to have its place as you use the literacy curriculum mandated by your school or district. And the more you incorporate PBL, the easier it will become for you and your students.

Next time, I’ll share more about the who, where, when, and how of PBL.