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Getting Started With Project Based Learning

March 2012 • Sue Jackson

Continuing our discussion about project-based learning, this month's tip focuses on the question: How do I get started with project-based learning in my classroom?

Project-based learning can be effective for all grade levels and subject areas. Some teachers use this methodology extensively and others occasionally during a school year. Projects can vary in length, from days to weeks or even a semester. The key ideas underlying project-based learning can be used in some measure in all classrooms. To make project-based learning work, ample time must be provided for extended project work. A standard 40 minute class period is not adequate.

As you begin implementing project-based learning, consider the qualities best projects share. They:

  • are loosely designed with the possibility of different learning paths
  • are generative, causing students to construct meaning
  • centre on a driving question or are otherwise structured for inquiry
  • capture student interest through complex and compelling, real-life or simulated experiences
  • are realistic, and therefore cross multiple disciplines
  • reach beyond school to involve others
  • tap rich data or primary sources
  • are structured so students learn with and from each other
  • have students working as inquiring experts might
  • get at 21st century skills and literacies, including communication, project management, and technology use
  • get at important learning dispositions, including persistence, risk-taking, confidence, resilience, self-reflection, and cooperation
  • have students learn by doing
from Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, Boss, Suzie and Krauss, Jane. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education, 2007, p. 65.

Framing a Project

A good way to begin project-based learning is to determine the central concepts your project will address. The following prompts help establish your conceptual framework. You may want to jot your ideas and thinking on a planning sheet (see inset).

  1. Pick any three subjects you teach (e.g., reading, science, mathematics).
  2. From these three subjects, identify a topic or topics you would like to teach through project-based learning.
  3. Consider concepts from other subjects which could be incorporated in this learning.
  4. Think about the 21st century skills students will develop (e.g., creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration and communication, personal development, global citizenship, information and media literacy, and digital competence).
  5. Imagine how your project plan can use the higher-order thinking skills of:
    • Analyze—examine, explain, investigate, characterize, classify, compare, deduce, differentiate, discriminate, illustrate, prioritize
    • Evaluate—judge, select, decide, justify, verify, improve, defend, debate, convince, recommend, assess
    • Create—adapt, anticipate, combine, compose, invent, design, imagine, propose, theorize, formulate
  6. Ask yourself:
    • In what ways can a project help students learn how the world works and how they will work in the world?
    • How can it set them up to practice skills that will make them effective lifelong learners?
  7. Consider the learning dispositions (traits, attitudes, habits, feelings) you can cultivate in your students (e.g., confidence, curiosity, resourcefulness, cooperation, motivation, persistence, courage). Learners acquire learning dispositions through experiences and encouragement.
  8. Think about what would spark your students' curiosity and interest ('passion-based learning').
  9. Identify the essential learning functions technology can develop (e.g., ubiquity, deep learning, making things visible and discussable, expression of ideas and building community, collaboration, research, project management, and reflection) and choose appropriate tools to match these functions. Make thoughtful decisions about using technology to enhance learning; not just to use technology.
*adapted from Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, Boss, Suzie and Krauss, Jane. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education, 2007.

Planning a Project

  1. Revisit your framework (see above).
  2. Establish evidence of understanding.
  3. Plan the "vehicle"—the project purpose or challenge. Think about what you want your students to inquire about, do or create. Strive for 'optimal ambiguity'—both enough structure and enough flexibility to serve the needs of the project. Use an essential question to promote real inquiry.
  4. Plan an 'entry event' to engage student interest and enthusiasm for the project. Ask yourself: How will I captivate my students?
  5. Introduce the essential question and initiate further student questioning. Help students by using question starters such as:
    • "Which one" questions—ask students to collect information and make informed decisions
    • "How" questions—ask students to understand problems, weigh options, and propose solutions
    • "What if" questions—ask students to use the knowledge they have to pose a hypothesis and consider options
    • "Should" questions—ask students to make moral or practical decisions based on evidence
    • "Why" questions—ask students to understand cause and effect, relationships, and gets to the essence of an issue
  6. Guide students in their inquiry process.
At this point, you may think your plan lacks detail and is a little fuzzy. Don't worry! Planning down to the last action might constrain the project and limit where students can take it.

Sue Jackson, a classroom teacher for 20 years, is an enthusiastic and innovative author, speaker, consultant, and educator.

Scholastic Education
National Literacy Consultant

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Also available online, previous Teaching Tips for
Scholastic Education resources:

Literacy Place for the Early Years (K–3)

Moving Up with Literacy Place (4–6)

Stepping Up with Literacy Place (7–9)

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