• Josh Arnold

Project Based Learning: A Transition Guide

In the past year I’ve experimented with a few different shifts in my approach to content teaching. One of these shifts included project based learning. Students crave hands on, experiential learning and often request to do these kinds of activities in the classroom. There’s also a lot of educational research that shows students learn best this way. So there was plenty of motivation to get started with project based learning. What I really like about project based learning is that students show you their understanding and teachers get to see what they are getting firsthand. No data spreadsheets or fancy diagnostics, just students putting their hands on materials and getting to work learning content. No multiple choice test or bubbling sheets to show mastery either.

In my classroom I’ve given students a lot of room to experiment with content. To me this means there is no set of detailed instructions students follow. There is no 100 point project at the end of each unit with a project idea created by me with hopes that my students will be my assembly line and produce 100 copies of the same product. Instead I offer a few guidelines and allow students the freedom to make their own ideas happen. I think a set of instructions is what breaks the creative process of our students. A set of instructions can prevent a student from using their own interests in learning the content and worst of all a set of instructions does not present an authentic challenge to students. All of which helps to maintain the status quo in education.

One way I work to incorporate all these ideas into my classroom is with a Launch Activity. There’s nothing original about this name or idea. Basically this is my hook or introduction into a standard I’m about to teach. I like to keep them short and not have them drag out into longer productions so maybe just two periods of teaching at the most for the launch activity. As stated before I don’t give step by step instructions but I do offer limits to what students can do with the activity that way things stay neat in the classroom and keeps learning on pace. I do read something to the class and give them a copy of the text before they start working. This text is the main points of the concept in the standard so it is important that students have a copy and you read it to them. I also offer students a chance to ask questions about the concept to help identify those first points of confusion they might be experiencing.

Some examples of launch activities include: building a model of the three branches of government using a few design materials, play an online simulation, role play a historical figure talking about a current standard. I teach Civics to middle school students but you can easily adapt any of these ideas to any content area. I would also consider adding your own ideas to how you support the students in your classroom as you know them best. So you may have to tinker with the way you introduce the launch activity as well.

Once you’ve established the launch activity in your classroom you can begin to offer students greater challenges. This might include giving them a standard to learn and students work together to design a lesson to teach the class. I’ve had students learn a standard and then conduct a discussion with the class. Once project based learning takes root in your classroom the best ideas should start to come from your own students.

A student created board game that teaches how a bill becomes law.

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