Let’s continue our exploration of Project-Based Learning by looking at the who, where, when, and how of PBL. (Take a look back at the what of PBL, if you’d like.)

Who is Project-Based Learning for?

The short answer is . . . PBL is for everyone! It’s easy to read about PBL and think, “That’s for older kids.” After all, a major component of project-based learning is student research. How can kindergarteners research when they’re just learning how to read? It might be helpful to expand our ideas of how student research can be done.

Angela Sosnovich, a kindergarten teacher in Middletown, Connecticut, guides her students through an investigation of how animals adapt to life in various climates. Her students gather information through read alouds and guided readings of simple texts that contain visual supports. Sosnovich scaffolds for her struggling readers by helping them gather information from familiar books. With assistance, her five- and six-year old students produce picture books to demonstrate their learning.

Where does PBL happen?

Most of the PBL action takes place in the classroom. But depending on the availability of time and resources, PBL can extend outside the classroom walls. Field trips are a natural fit for students to gather information in real-world settings. Some teachers use field trips as springboards to initiate projects. In schools with computer labs, media centers, or libraries, students spend time conducting research there.

When I was in the classroom, my school did not have a staffed library or computer lab. However, we could walk across the street to the public library where wonderful librarians were eager to help my students with their research. Community resources can be a wonderful asset for PBL.

When do I have time for PBL?

Time is a concern for most teachers. It often feels as if there aren’t enough minutes in the day to teach everything as in-depth as we’d like. But PBL can be integrated into the school day, regardless of school or district mandates about instructional programs or minutes. Some elementary teachers root their projects in social studies or science and devote their instructional time for these subjects to PBL. The arts and technology are integrated as students share the information they have learned in various forms (e.g., displays, animated videos, dioramas, songs, skits). Teachers who have flexibility with their literacy programs might choose to devote their ELA time to PBL through guided readings, literature circles, academic vocabulary lessons, and writer’s workshop sessions connected to the driving question of the project.

How do I start PBL in my classroom?

When you are ready to give PBL a try, consider these starting points:

  • Allow time for your students to practice the prerequisite skills of research, group work, and independent work habits. Students need not be experts in these areas to begin PBL, but prior practice will help projects go more smoothly.
  • Focus on one or two related subject-area learning standards as you develop a driving question or challenge to anchor the project, but be mindful of other standards that might complement the exploration as well. (Remember that ELA standards will be integrated as students work on the project.) Make the question or challenge relevant to your students’ lives to engage them in the project.
  • Think about how students will gather information and collaborate. Consider what types of products students may create to demonstrate their learning and how you will assess their processes and products.*
  • Develop a rough timeline that includes each component of the project. Allow for flexibility as new ideas come to light or as passions drive the project in a different direction.
  • Consider backwards design. Kathleen Chenu, a fourth-grade teacher in Los Angeles, California, has the following advice: “Start with the end in mind—what do you want students to accomplish? Then, build in activities from there. Also, giving students a criteria chart at the beginning of the project is helpful so students can see the big picture and know when activities are due.”

Project-based learning excites and engages students. It helps them make meaningful connections to content, which in turn helps them better retain the information they learn. The process is as important as the outcome. Chenu, who has been guiding her students though PBL for several years, advises, “Your first project will not be the best, but every year you can improve upon it based on student feedback and teacher observation.”

* A great resource for PBL is PBL in the Elementary Grades, published by the Buck Institute for Education. The book contains reproducible templates and self-assessment rubrics for students of various ages and assessment rubrics for teachers.