PBP: Putting Power in a Student’s Hands

Giving a student the power to self-direct a project is one of the most empowering, encouraging, and challenging things you can do for them. A lot of discussion recently has surrounded project-based learning and the creation of project-based schools, but what does it all mean and how does it work? Let’s start with a definition.

PBL integrates knowing and doing. Students learn knowledge and elements of the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce results that matter. PBL students take advantage of digital tools to produce high quality, collaborative products. PBL refocuses education on the student, not the curriculum–a shift mandated by the global world, which rewards intangible assets such as drive, passion, creativity, empathy, and resiliency. These cannot be taught out of a textbook, but must be activated through experience. (Source)

Now for an example. My sophomore year of high school we were given the task of choosing a topic. It could be any topic we wanted, but the goal was to produce over the course of the year a paper for history, science, and theology based on the topic. (These subjects corresponded to the world history, chemistry, and world religions classes we were taking at the time.)  At the end of the year, we would give a presentation highlighting each component, a comprehensive look at the research we had done in 9 months. It was called the Sophomore Symposium.

For my Symposium I chose to research dreams. (Note: my classmates topics ranged from labyrinths to cosmetics to veganism.) For my history paper, the first of the three, I researched the development of our cultural standpoint on dreams, historical events that had resulted from dreams, and perceptions of dreams in other cultures throughout history. Being somewhat of a history nerd, I didn’t mind at all the countless hours I spent in the library digging through book after book after book. The reality was that I was learning fascinating stuff. My favorite fact? Adolf Hitler dreamt that a bomb blew up his company’s trench during WWI, he woke up and climbed out, missing the blast by mere seconds. He was the only survivor, and the rest is, well, history.

I had always been fascinated by psychology, so for my science paper I focused on the neuroscience behind dreaming. Admittedly, science has never been one of my favorite subjects. However, the beauty of the Symposium was that even though I had a general distaste for science, I was still researching a topic I was interested in and genuinely intent on learning more about. My curiosity drove me, even through pages of scientific jargon in medical journals. And while I had spent my entire school career writing almost solely humanities essays, I was forced to learn how to write a scientific essay and produce one.

The last paper seemed as though it would be something of a struggle. I was interested in world religions in general, but it seemed impossible to delve into them with the overarching topic of dreams without overlapping my history essay and/or boring myself to tears. Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which I could conduct my research and construct an essay after having completed the first two essays. Citing, scanning, quoting, footnoting, all seemed like a breeze. I had learned valuable research skills and could see the tangible results of my progress. It was, needless to say, quite a satisfying revelation.

By the time my presentation came around at the end of the school year, I could probably have recited endless facts about dreams in my sleep. It was amazing to stand in front of the audience and truly be able to feel like I knew more about my topic than anyone else in the room, to feel like I had really accomplished something.

Project-based learning is, in my opinion, a fantastic alternative to standard teaching practices. It has the capability to touch all subjects and address all standards while having the advantage of allowing a student to drive their own learning and actually enjoy the process.

What do you think of project-based learning? Would you try it in your classroom? Have you already?