Imagine, Explore, Learn, Think, Know…a different approach to teaching By: Inge Elliott
Project-based learning, or PBL, is not a new concept. The idea of ‘learning by doing’ is as timeless as our inception: Human beings are innately driven to solve problems by defining all the possible solutions and then deciding on which practical strategies to adopt in order to achieve them.
WHAT IS PBL?
Project-based learning is a method of education which fulfils a young adolescent’s need to make connections with the world outside of the classroom. Children, primarily between the ages of 9 and 11 years of age, are passionate about engaging in tasks that are rooted in social consciousness- possessing an element of truth and relevance in the ‘real’ world. They are at an age when their level of maturity and curiosity is complimented by their emotionally-driven need to foster change and facilitate development within their broader society. Enter project-based learning.
Project-based learning encourages critical thinking and the development of the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in our unnervingly fast-paced world. This approach replaces the ‘what’ with the ‘how’ and attempts to prepare children for a future career which may not yet exist but will most certainly require skills such as complex problem-solving, originality and adaptability.
PBL is a reality-based approach to educating young minds. It celebrates the collaborative creation of content rather than the mere repetition of material passively absorbed in class. It is a process which enables the children to take ownership of their learning experience while simultaneously gaining an appreciation of how to work effectively as part of a team.
PBL IN PRACTICE
The role of the educator is to formulate a leading question. This question acts as the point of departure for all PBL tasks. A successful leading question is unrestricted, thought-provoking and requires extensive research and debate. An example of such a question would be: “How would life be different in a gender neutral world? Examine aspects of gender stereotyping and explain how you may change it.” The teacher has now provided the tip of the ice-berg. It is for the children to discover what lies beneath the surface of the question. This is where the real work begins.
Firstly, the learners have to grapple with the concepts of gender, neutrality and stereotypes. They then need to find proof of gender stereotyping within their own community, for example, a toy store that has separate sections for boys and girls. The girls’ section contains dolls and dainty objects, while the boys’ section houses building blocks and LEGO. Thirdly, they must decide how they would correct this stereotype. They may choose to voice their concerns in the form of a letter to the store owner. Furthermore, they could opt to generate a survey which they distribute among the younger learners in their school to prove that toy preferences are independent of gender. Lastly, the learners need to agree on the most suitable format to present their findings, such as a graph to represent the results of their survey.
The above process is merely a brief overview of a complex procedure. The more detailed aspects of the task is carefully managed via an extensive rubric designed by the teacher. PBL is not an abstract ‘free for all’ with no clear vision or sequential structure. PBL’s success relies fundamentally on a step-by-step approach which, while open to interpretation, is molded into a tangible set of criteria. Examples of focus points for PBL rubrics include: use of technology, collaboration, concept maps, written/oral presentation, content, creativity and evidence of critical thinking.
PBL places children in the realm of the unknown inasmuch as a leading question often includes subject matter that the learner has possibly never considered. In order to come to grips with the task, learners have to be tenacious in their pursuit of possible solutions- a crucial characteristic that is lacking in today’s world of instant gratification.
PBL embraces the role of the child, not the educator, as the centre of his/her learning. The role of the teacher is crucial as the ‘guide on the side’, facilitating the sharing of differing opinions and acting as a navigator to ensure that a viable route is followed in order to attain the goals set out by the learners. Therefore, the child feels supported, and simultaneously empowered, to engage in the task without needing the constant reassurance of the teacher.
Lastly, PBL deviates from the belief that there is only ‘one right answer.’ In a society where social media places profound pressure on children to emulate perfection, it is refreshing, as an educator, to adopt a method of education in which one correct answer simply does not exist. The learning occurs through hypothesizing, making mistakes, observing and collaborating, and not through parrot-learning or ‘chalk and talk’ instruction with only one defined outcome.
As many educators and parents will know, ‘but why’ is a frequent and, oftentimes, exasperating question posed to us by young, inquiring minds. The customary, ‘because I said so’ response may now, however, have a more meaningful counterpart: ‘What could you do to find out?”
“Education is not the learning of facts, it’s rather the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein had a point…perhaps project-based learning does too.