Project-based learning requires students to apply their skills and knowledge to solving real-world problems. With the PBL model, students learn in a way that is more self-guided than traditional classroom models. Students are given time to work autonomously on project design and implementation, allowing them to develop decision-making and group cooperation skills.
Unfortunately, current attempts to integrate PBL into classrooms are limited by school structures. Subject divisions in the student schedule force teachers to align their projects with a certain discipline, precluding the opportunity for true curriculum integration. In addition, the limits of class time force students to start and stop projects all at once. Furthermore, many feel that PBL simply isn’t rigorous enough. Fortunately, there are ways to ensure not only that your PBL is appropriately rigorous for today’s standards, but also that it is sufficiently personalized to engage each individual student.
The Problem of Personalization
The idea of personalizing the educational system came about originally as a way to address a lack of student engagement. When all students are forced to comply with a certain academic structure, individual strengths and weaknesses are often ignored. For example, the idea of the Carnegie Unit was very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries as the school system began to become more regulated. This unit of time dictates the number of hours of teacher/student instruction that should take place during the year. As a result, school days are segmented into classes, each with a universal start and end time. The efficiency of this model worked well for the now antiquated lecture-heavy instructional strategies that used to be common. However, as new educational strategies are found to be more effective, the concept of the Carnegie Unit is becoming more of a hindrance than an aid.
Allowing learning to take place outside of set constraints is one of the goals of personalization. Utilizing online tools has the potential to be extremely helpful in this regard, as the Internet provides a common platform that students and their teachers can all access from almost anywhere at any time. As such, PBL initiatives that utilize cloud-based technologies such as Dropbox for file sharing become indispensable tools for bringing education to the student on their own terms. Allowing students to define their own due dates and benchmarks further allows projects to be personalized in a way that individual learners will feel ownership over their work and demonstrate higher levels of engagement.
Employing Rigorous Learning Standards
While allowing students the autonomy to design their own PBL curricula may do wonders to get them fully engaged in their education, it can also have the unintended negative consequence of resulting in a low level of academic rigor. Indeed, one of the most common objections to PBL is that the projects themselves, by their very nature, do not meet educational standards. While it may be true that students, if left completely alone, may not develop the most demanding projects for themselves, there are ways the teacher can serve as a support to ensure high standards are met.
The first key is to make sure students are clearly defining the skills they will be using in their projects. Requiring students to be clear about the content of their projects will force them to effectively analyze whether what they are proposing is intensive enough. In addition, provide multifaceted feedback throughout the process. Feedback can take the shape of formative assessments, reflective activities, reports, or portfolio reviews. As long as you are routinely checking in with your students and making sure they are continuously moving forward, there is no reason PBL can’t be successful in your classroom.