In education, we all love a good acronym, but many people use the term “PBL” (Project Based Learning) without knowing what it truly means.

Most educators appreciate the concept of PBL and many even originally got into education because they loved the heart behind it. They want to see more PBL happening in schools and appreciate the fact that PBL concepts are currently in vogue because the practice thoroughly equips students with skills for the 21st Century.

But what most people don’t realize (and what we often see ourselves) is that Project Based Learning is far more than simply getting students to work on a project for an hour or so.

There is a very rigorous “gold standard” for PBL, developed and recommended by the Buck Institute for Education. Failing to uphold this gold standard can actually cause problems for institutions trying to implement PBL.

As John Lamar and John R. Mergendoller of the Buck Institute aptly put it:

If done well, PBL yields great results. But if PBL is not done well, two problems are likely to arise. First, we will see a lot of assignments and activities that are labeled as “projects” but which are not rigorous PBL, and student learning will suffer. Or, we will see projects backfire on underprepared teachers and result in wasted time, frustration, and failure to understand the possibilities of PBL.

What Separates PBL From Traditional After-School Programs?

Unfortunately, we all too often see schools partnering with after-school programs that profess a project-based approach, but don’t deliver on their promise. They use the popular jargon to appeal to educators while only providing students with disconnected hands-on activities and claim it’s PBL. Just because you place a pretty bow around something, doesn’t mean it’s really a gift.

A true PBL program has three distinct component parts:

Student learning goals
Essential project design elements
Project based teaching practices

If any of these three elements is missing, it’s not true PBL.

So how can we practically implement PBL during after-school? Over the next few days we’ll be posting a series of three articles on the topic of PBL and what you should expect from a PBL-based after-school provider. Today, we’ll cover the first component, followed by two additional posts in the coming days.

Component #1: Student Learning Goals

It’s not enough to fill students heads with content. We need to give them far more than just answers or information, rather we need to equip them for success, both in school and in their careers.

How do we do that?

Key Knowledge and Understanding: The goal of PBL is to give students crucial knowledge and understanding as well as the ability to apply that knowledge and understanding to real world situations. We want to help them learn critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills.

For example, a gold-standard project may ask students to dive deep into the question of, “What’s the best way to stop the flu at our school?” Another may be, “Should pets be allowed to attend class?”

The objective is to present students with a real-world problem, then have them employ a variety of key skills to understand and solve that problem.

Key Success Skills: It’s not enough for students to simply know concepts. They need to be able to embrace critical thinking and problem solving in every facet of their lives. These “success skills” will allow them to succeed and flourish in their careers and lives.

At Innovation Learning, a “problem” can take many forms, depending on the subject area and type of project. The problem posed to students could be a made-up situation, like case study or a scenario, or it could be a fully-authentic real-world problem. And for younger students, many times the challenge is to create something tangible. Regardless of the outcome, it takes a variety of skills to successfully navigate a good PBL challenge question and to work alongside others to produce results. Along with associative and integrative thinking techniques, students must learn, use and practice a variety of other skills such as communication, collaboration and creativity in order to develop solutions. All the while integrating content to gain a better understanding of the problem and develop viable solutions.

For example, the Buck Institute describes a problem that was all too real-world for some 5th graders: the P.A. system in their classroom was too loud when announcements were made. This situation sparked the idea for a project whose driving question was “How can we improve the acoustic environment in our classroom?” The students engaging in this challenge had to collaborate with their fellow students, think critically through a variety of viewpoints, understand certain scientific content, and gather the necessary resources to convincingly answer the question through an actionable plan. PBL processes like this one helps students learn and practice skills they will use in the real world to understand and solve complex concepts.

At Innovation Learning, we use Project Based Learning to teach these skills in conjunction with the content students are learning in school to help them develop an integrative mindset.

In our next two posts, we will further expand on this, explaining essential project design elements and project based teaching practices.

The series will cover 3 distinct component parts:

Student learning goals
Essential project design elements

Project based teaching practices