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Written by Scott Peterman, BSD Education
A growing chorus of employers are voicing frustration about job applicants who are technically proficient, with touted high grades and test scores but lacking in key skills such communication, decision-making, and problem-solving that are necessary to successfully do the jobs they have applied for. In order to effectively address this mismatch, educators are increasingly embracing a combination of project based learning and personalized learning in order to better prepare students for careers in the 21st century.
Project Based Learning (PBL) blends content mastery, meaningful work, and personal connection to create powerful learning experiences, in terms of both academic achievement and students’ personal growth. PBL can be transformative for students, especially those who lack access to out of school time educational opportunities such as workplace internships.
Project Based Learning offers students the opportunity to actively engage in activities that provide real-world relevance and a direct application for what they’re learning. For example, students can solve problems that are important to them and their communities. At it’s best, PBL leads to deeper understanding and greater retention of content knowledge, with students better able to apply what they know to new situations thanks to a personal connection to their academic experience.
Let’s dive a little deeper to better understand how project-based learning leverages technology and how it intersects with personalized student learning.
Simply put, Project Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method through which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.
It is becoming widely used in schools and other educational settings, with different varieties being practiced because it supports students at all skill levels, meeting each student exactly where they are. Problems can be delivered based on what a student knows and doesn’t know, which customizes the experience to be unique for each student.
Project-based learning can be a catalyst for transforming learning, helping students move from asking “what?” to also asking “why?” and “how?”
In a traditional classroom, students often focus on memorizing facts to pass a test. However, research has shown that by organizing learning around meaningful goals, PBL can be an effective way to cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students—students are motivated to deepen their understanding in order to solve a problem that is meaningful to them.
Concepts are better understood when students see a need for their use, make an authentic connection with them, because that need encourages them to apply what they’re learning to relevant situations, leading to a better sense of understanding. Researchers have also observed higher rates of students staying on task and paying close attention to the teacher and their peers.
However, there are key characteristics that differentiate “doing a project” from engaging in Project Based Learning.
While PBL has been increasingly embraced by educators in pursuit of ‘personalized learning,’ it is important to remember that without the right tools, it can still be just a buzzword. Preparing students to be lifelong learners capable of partaking knowledgeably in both civic life and a rapidly changing workforce, requires not just focusing on technology, personalization, or even coding, but the broader content and foundation at the heart of these experiences. Put another way, quality curriculum and instructional design is still the key to the long-term impact PBL can have on any student.
A vivid example of these limitations is provided in the following passage from a 2017 Edutopia article:
“As students learn to read, it is critical that they build a strong and wide foundation of knowledge. A learner’s background knowledge is a key ingredient in her ability to learn and absorb information from what she is reading and consuming. Accordingly, personalizing learning through technology will be most powerful when it is coupled with intentional, coherent and rigorous instruction… Yes, tapping into and developing children’s interests and instilling in them a sense of ownership of their education is important. Yet allowing them unbridled choice of what they learn, especially when they are young, means that in certain cases they will miss building that foundation… If students don’t have a working familiarity with a body of knowledge, a new passage on the topic—no matter how elementary it may seem and no matter how strong the reader’s fundamental decoding skills—will frustrate… Without at least a working familiarity with a topic, Google—where you have to generate the right question to ask—will only take you so far in the moment. That is because, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote, “Every passage that you read omits information. All of this omitted information must be brought to the text by the reader.”
This passage is an important reminder that how educators incorporate PBL and Technology into their curriculum, will really define the success of their efforts and long-term impact it has on students.
One of the best attributes of PBL is it’s versatility to be highly impactful for students in practically every learning context. For example, PBL is not only the foundation of all of BSD’s in-school curriculum, but also our out-of school-time (OST) curriculum as well. We do this not for convenience or even continuity, rather because it has proven itself to consistently be the most effective model for sparking & sustaining engagement for the vast majority of students we work with, regardless of their prior tech experience or interest level.
PBL offers us the contextual framework to change students to shift their thinking from, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ to, ‘what problems do you want to solve when you grow up.’
By engaging in project-based learning units that have a strong career focus, students have the chance to see how concepts & lessons that may have previously seemed abstract directly apply and can be used in the working world. This offers students the chance to experience education through the eyes of artists, entrepreneurs, tech professionals and more.
These clear connections to contextually relevant career opportunities creates excitement by encouraging students to strive to learn more in a subject and ultimately changes their experience of education from learning as a task to learning to achieve bigger and better outcomes.