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Project Based Learning in High School

Project Based Learning

November 15, 2018

The use of project-based learning is on the rise in Colorado, and across the country. While the term "project-based learning" is relatively new, the concept dates back to the early 1900s and the philosophy of education reformer John Dewey. Today, there is a growing body of research supporting the idea that hands-on instruction is more effective than traditional teaching methods.

What is project-based learning?

In project-based learning, students learn by identifying a real-world problem and developing a solution. It is a teaching method that shifts away from teacher-centered instruction toward student-centered projects. Students work on a challenge or complex problem for an extended period and may even work with businesses and professionals in the community. As they investigate and work towards a solution, they show their knowledge as they go along, not just at the end.

Projects range from the global, such as climate change or health care, to more local problems, such as designing a garden to help feed the homeless or redesigning public transportation in the city. Project-based learning is about more than just projects! Fundamentally, it is learning by doing. Once a project is chosen, students look for resources and organize the necessary tasks. Rather than lecturing or providing all the answers, the teacher's role is to guide students. The students have to master any necessary skills, such as using the latest computer software or doing a SWOT analysis.

Elements of a project-based learning challenge

There may be many elements in a project, depending on the nature of the project and the ages and skill levels of the students. These may include:

  • Units that require research and comprehension of multiple subjects
  • Real-world scenarios
  • Real-world expertise brought into the classroom
  • Various reading and writing genres
  • Role-playing
  • Multiple methods of communication (writing, oral speaking, visual presentations, publishing, etc.)
  • Collaboration

What are the basic steps in project-based learning?

Identify a real-world problem

It should be tangible, engaging, and relevant to your life as a student. It may be an issue related to your school, community, or a problem related to students' shared issues. The students must be able to understand the complexities of the problem, so some problems may not be appropriate for all grade levels. 

For teachers, what is the purpose of the challenge?

As the teacher, what do you want to accomplish? It may be problem-solving skills, topics related to the curriculum, collaboration, or any combination of purposes. Depending on the problem you choose, determine what you want to accomplish by running the challenge.

Resource material

A clearly defined purpose will help determine what resource materials are needed. The resources will not only provide guidance and information, but they will also help the students stay focused on a particular aspect of the project, such as math or engineering. Students who are struggling may especially need the resources to give them direction.

Teachers provide goals and expectations

A rubric or guide outlining goals and expectations can help students break the task into manageable tasks and stay on track as they work through the activity.

Students present their project

Presenting the final idea or product is great, but a presentation should be more. It should include a discussion of the subject matter content, the planning, organizing and execution of the project. It should also include how and what they learned, how they worked as a group, and reflection on what could be done differently.

Why use project-based learning?

Project-based learning offers many advantages, such as:

  • Tech Skills: Technology is a part of students' everyday lives. They like it, and they need to know how to use it effectively to be competitive in their world.
  • Passion for Learning: According to a literature review of studies about the pedagogy, students engaging in project based learning are better able to learn and recall information. By showing them how to identify and work on problems, they are more likely to become lifelong learners. 
  • Working in groups, and sharing ideas through discussion and answering questions encourages long-term knowledge retention. It also teaches interaction and communication. Therefore, students are learning teamwork and collaboration, and other valuable skills they can use in the future.

Why is project-based learning important?

In a project-based learning classroom, groups of students are asked to take on a project which usually has a real-world application. The project itself is the vehicle for learning. This type of learning tends to be interdisciplinary, drawing from a number of subjects such as science or history.  It also has an emphasis on technology, which students both enjoy and need to use in their work.

Students care deeply about the world around them, especially those in the Aurora community. The problems presented should be important and actionable. Students need to feel that they can make a difference in the world. This is especially true for high school students, who are preparing to enter college or a career, and who are coming face-to-face with the realities of today's world.  Research on the learning outcomes of project-based versus traditional learning methods shows that project-based students retain the content longer, have well-developed problem solving and collaboration skills, and improved attitudes towards learning.

How do you know if a high school is a project-based learning school?

The best way to determine if a school is a project-based learning high school is to observe and ask questions.

  • Ask to see specific examples of projects.
  • Is project-based learning used at all grade levels and subjects?
  • Do all students have access to project-based learning, or is it treated as a special or exclusive program?
  • If the access is limited, is there a clear and reasonable plan for expanding its use?
  • Are the projects challenging?
  • How is technology used in projects?
  • Are the projects authentic, dealing with real problems and interacting with experts, the local community, or other organizations?

The old, traditional methods of passive learning cannot sufficiently prepare students for the world they live in. According to the Buck Institute for Education, which helps train teachers in project-based learning, research shows project-based learning is a valuable learning method for all students.

For more information on project-based learning high schools, contact us.

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