I’ve been reading a book called Project-Based Learning: Real Questions. Real Answers. How to Unpack PBL and Inquiry by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, and I find myself reflecting on my past as an educator. As a science teacher for most of my career, I had a lot of opportunities for project work to happen in my classroom. But here’s the thing, I’m not sure that I was always achieving the full potential impact of project work. And I think the difference lies in whether we are “Doing a project” or if we are engaged in “Project-based learning.” I’d love to dig into those ideas a little bit more.
Doing a project
When I taught sixth-grade science, a section of the standards we covered each year was related to space science. One standard was something about gaining an understanding of the planets and objects in our solar system. It seemed like a great opportunity for a project. So, I opened a word document to start writing some directions. I pulled together resources (checked out books from the library, found some websites to share, and collected some videos on our solar system). I decided that the best format would be a poster. When I finished my directions, it was about a page long. The only choice that a student got to make in the project was what planet/object they wanted to learn about.
While we were working on the project, I provided class in time to do research. I provided supplies for students to make their posters. I met with students regularly on their projects to make sure that they were on the right track (most of these meetings were about whether or not they were following the directions). At the end of the project, I collected the posters, and as I went through them, I noticed a few things.
Every one had the name of their planet/object centered at the top of the poster. Everyone had one of the same two dozen pictures that I had printed out for them to use. Everyone had the same types of facts (size, mass, distance from the sun, length of the day, length of a year, etc.).
Now, there is nothing wrong with this project. Students learned about their planet/object. Students created something that they were proud of. Students were excited to have them displayed around the classroom as well as in the hallway outside of our classroom.
But what they did, I don’t know that I can call it true project learning. I had the privilege of meeting Chris Lehmann when I was at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. Something that I’ve heard him say is:
Think about it. Websites like Serious Eats or Bon Appétit post some amazing recipes. Many of those recipes have been developed by professional chefs working in professional kitchens, and then they are tested by others in their home kitchens so that the recipe can be adapted so that I, as a home cook, can make J. Kenji López-Alt’s All American Meatloaf recipe in my house and end up with a result that looks (and hopefully tastes) like the version that Kenji made himself (by the way, this is seriously one of my family’s favorite recipes that I make, and is worth every second of the time it takes to make).
So, what’s the point? What does recipe testing have to do with project work? Well, recipes are developed so that anyone who makes them can make a version that they can be proud of. But if you are great at following recipes, I’m not sure that you can call yourself a chef (yet). Similarly, doing a project is more likely about following directions, especially if a category of your rubric is based on following directions! Often, doing a project has more to do with following directions than learning.
So, let’s think about how Project-Based Learning might be a little different than simply doing a project. Here’s an example from when I was teaching social studies.
One year I was part of a team of sixth-grade teachers. Within that team of teachers, my role was to teach all our students in science while the other teachers would teach our students other subjects. Then each one of us would teach social studies to our homeroom class. One of the years I was teaching social studies, my students got into doing “extra” research on the topics we were learning about. As we were approaching our unit on the Roman Empire, I wanted to lean into that interest that they had. Instead of teaching that unit in the typical format that was suggested by our curriculum guide or our scope and sequence, I decided to create a project. But this was when I was several years deeper into my teaching career. I had learned from some of the issues of “doing a project” that I had learned as described above.
For this project, instead of creating a word document that was full of directions, pulling together a bunch of resources, and then expecting a similar outcome, I decided to go very much minimal. I wanted to see what my kids would come up with. I decided that I was going to create the conditions for students to dig into the things they were most interested in about the Roman Empire. And my students did not disappoint! So, here’s what we did:
At the time, there was a single standard that said something along the lines of “understand the rise, fall, and cultural achievements of ancient civilizations in Europe and Mesoamerica.” Then it listed several examples including the Roman Empire.
On the day we started the project, I had no directions sheet. I had not pulled together any resources. I put the standard on the board, and as a class, we dissected what it meant. We talked about what it meant for an Empire to rise and fall. I had students share what they thought the phrase cultural achievements meant. I let them make conjectures based on current cultural achievements. Students brought up music, art, clothing, design, architecture, and so much more.
Next, we talked about resources we might be able to use to learn about some of these things. Students brought up our textbook, the library, digital encyclopedias, and the web, among other options.
The next day, I gave students time in class to learn. I had gone to the library and checked out everything I could on Ancient Rome. I checked out the iPad cart (does anybody else remember those) and put a handful of quality resources on my class website (this was before having an LMS like Canvas for a middle school class). But I also told them that if they had other ideas of places they might look for information, they certainly could use it. I told them that by the end of our third day, they needed to select a topic they wanted to learn more about and share with the class.
The next few days in class were a blur of research and work time. When students were struggling to find what they needed, I would sit down with them, but they also worked collaboratively at times. My role was that of a guide, not the all-knowing sage. They became aware of others learning about similar topics and they shared resources. On Monday of our second week of the project, we came back together for a brief share of what they found most interesting about our topic, and then we started talking about ways they could share what they knew. Some students wanted to make a poster, a few wanted to create a PowerPoint, one student who was studying architecture wanted to build a model, yet another student said she was going to design and sew a Roman outfit. We set a target due date of Friday for students to share what they had learned.
That week, our classroom converted to a working space every day in social studies. We had kids designing, building, sewing, and more! They spent time developing and then practicing their presentation. The learning was electric! A couple of times I needed to pull the class together to go over a few important details where I noticed some misconceptions. When Friday came, it was sharing day. The kids were so excited to share what they had learned. We invited our principal and assistant principal, our librarian, and anyone else who wanted to come for a visit that day. We had food, we had a fashion show of Roman clothing, we had a student who built a miniature working Roman aqueduct. This is a project that will stick with me forever!
Pulling it together
What I want to point out about the difference between the Space Science project on planets, and the Ancient Rome project was in how the learning happened. In the space science unit, learning happened prior to the project. We tacked a couple of days onto the end of the unit for students to put together a poster of things they had already learned. All the resources and materials were provided by me, and the results were identical. But in our Ancient Rome project, the work we did for the project was where our learning occurred.
One of the things that I figured out by the time I led my students through our Roman project is that some of the best learning experiences take place in integrated learning experiences that are fun and authentic! And even more important than that, I’d argue that the overall learning that happened for students during this project went far deeper than what the standard asked for.
Next week, I plan to look at how we might go about planning a great PBL experience for your class. I also hope to share some of the mistakes that I think I made in some of my earlier PBL experiences (hint: assessment! It can be hard in PBL settings!)
I’d love to know more about your thoughts. Have you ever noticed a difference between doing a project and engaging in project-based learning? Is there something that you’re still wondering about? Let me know! This is a topic I’m going to be digging into in the coming weeks, and your questions may help guide my direction.
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