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From worms to butterflies to mathematics- Project Based Learning in the Real World

August 31, 2009

The first commonality between these 3 exemplars of Project Based Learning (PBL) is the questioning that guides inquiry. In order for relevant learning to follow, students must be guided by their teachers to pose narrow, focussed questions that can only be answered by searching through vast amounts of information, or by collecting and comparing data in experiments. For example, students in the primary classroom studying worms became focused on particular aspects of worm biology as a result of being encouraged to link their inquiry to ideas already considered in the classroom.

The second common thread is the use of technology to search, gather, organize, synthesise and create a final product. Technology is not the be all and end all (See “It’s not about the technology”), however it does improve the ease of finding, gathering and organizing the information. The Internet has made information ubiquitous, however, it’s not completely necessary. Using technology as another tool in the PBL process is important, but not compulsory, as I pointed out in a Moodle posting recently. The PBL work my classes did in the mid-nineties, with minimal technology for the most part, substantiates the idea that good PBL can be done without technology. But the fact that the final products can be more engaging using technology is enough to take proper advantage of it.

The final prevalent feature of these examples of PBL is the authenticity of the projects. The learning that results must have a practical application, must be related to the real world and must be useful information in the pursuit of solutions to real world problems. The citizen science that is conducted in the Journey North Project, whereby the data collected and submitted by participating classes is used by scientists in their research affirms the work of the children. The fact that their work is available for others around the world to see, as were the contributions from my classes for Journey North. This peer judgement certainly raises the level of student productivity. In the case of the Geometry project, both peers and outside experts were used to determine the quality of work, and the students felt a huge sense of accomplishment as a result of the scrutiny of the architects who judged the projects.

The students in these PBL examples weren’t just passive learners, occasionally listening to their teachers’ lessons. They became active planners and participants in the learning, an act that reinforces the learning outcomes. The 21st century skills that group collaboration develops in projects such as these are transferable to other pursuits and it is the teachers’ role to make sure these skills are learned and practised. The content is not the teacher’s sole responsibility anymore, but rather, the facilitation of learning skills, learning outcomes, meeting provincial learning expectations, and assessment are the teacher’s main responsibilities in PBL.

The long term learning that results, besides the content that the individual inquiry uncovers, are the skills of research, collaboration and information sharing. The 21st century learner is no longer focused on the memorization of facts, but the gathering and sifting of information to create new ideas and products. Each of the three examples presented resulted in lasting and satisfying learning experiences that met the needs of the students, and the mandated curricula. Research has been done that substantiates the significant benefits to learning as a result of PBL (see Edutopia).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 3, 2009 8:07 pm

    Great points about the use of technology and authenticity! It’s also important to state that the students are actively involved in the learning process rather than just being “passive learners.” I also agree that PBL has students use their new knowledge and benefit much more from it compared to reading text books or listening to lectures.

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