The Magic of Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning is an approach that exhibits many dimensions. Students learn through the experience of doing. Early Learning and our Early Learners in many ways have mastered the art of Project-Based Learning and the Reggio philosophy is very much aligned with that approach. It begins with setting up a stimulating environment (not too much, not too little) and observe what children do, through play. Students at this age are naturally curious to explore and it is us as educators that need to respond to the pathways each individual (or group) is intrigued about, connected to or interested in. Let students determine their own learning landscape. There is a huge parallel with PBL here. Sometimes educators can ignite and motivate students to explore a particular path, and sometimes it comes from the students to spark their own passionate pursuits. In balance, there needs to be an interplay of both.

The important thing here is that schools create the space for students to explore areas that speak to them. It is a lot like a calling. The magic in these moments is that inspiration can come from everywhere. It may be innate and the time is ripe to listen to this voice and act on it. Sometimes it could be something that strikes like a lightning bolt out of nowhere. It’s all beautiful. It’s what we do with this magic dust that makes the difference with how students interact with this new found learning experience. Do we breathe life into it or blow the dust away?

Above I mentioned the power of Early Years and Early Learning.  At this spectrum in schools, learning needs to rise up and radiate throughout the rest of the school and then cascade into universities. A bit more pressure needs to be applied so that universities review their old habits and traps of learning. We have to be better than ‘managing people’ or ‘generating profit’ as our model for higher education.

If I was to characterize PBL in very simple terms using contexts I’m familiar with… it would be to combine the Grade 5 PYP Exhibition (Year-long) with the Early Years philosophy of purposeful play. A pinch of seeing the environment as the third teacher, a dollop of observing what is revealed and a cup of allowing a flow of exploration and discovery. A merging of these two worlds and releasing the learning so it is unfiltered.  This is the world I hope our students get to interact with.

Some may argue that this approach is not rigorous enough. What is rigor though? Rigor is not looking busy, being quiet and doing lots of writing – that’s compliance. My definition (in essence) of ‘rigor’ is creating a learning environment that inspires, where students are able to skillfully interpret and construct meaning and seek ways so that understanding is transferable in different contexts. So how can we ensure PBL covers core content and subjects? This is often asked by parents and teachers. We all know that learning something we’re not interested in equates to passive learning; therefore, not much learning is really happening anyway. There is far greater benefit if students are learning about what is timely for them, see relevance and meaning in what they want to do. It’s vital that they see and value learning as constantly moving from one shape to another. This is where being reflective about their growth and progress (high and lows) on a continuum of learning. Students are empowered to set goals that are realistic and also challenging. As advisors and connectors to learning, we need to guide and coach individual students towards areas that they need to be exposed to and having them understand the purpose of how that learning is interconnected, transformational and transferable. Let this process be a natural and highly-personal experience for them. This approach will have a deeper impact when developing new understanding(s) to existing knowledge. This is what constructivism is and it works.

The university conversation is one that still needs a lot more time. My hope is that university entry is based on merit, contributions to society and digital portfolios that document authentic experiences that demonstrate learning in action. Not testing or assessment. The assessment is weighted in the doing, being and showing, not in a timed examination without access to resources – that’s not real-world.

Imagine a world where PBL become the norm, not the exception. Imagine a world where students could show their intelligence, personality, uniqueness, quirks, and talents in creative ways as a showcase of who they are as young dynamic moral leaders. Imagine a world where success was based on confidence, optimism, resilience, problem-solving and creativity. Imagine a world that actually looks at how far you have grown over time, not where you stand at that point in time. Imagine a world where we were telling raw human stories about all our breakdowns and breakthroughs and how this shaped who we have become. It is my hope that universities don’t measure success on a raw test score of what you know or have memorized a few days before. But it is determined rather on what you have achieved and accomplished over the course of many young adolescent years, not the scarce accumulation of one or two. Again, this is why Early Years needs to push up through our tired school systems to ratify change and renewal. It is simply too top-down in our education system, where it needs to be from the roots up from a nutrient foundation.

We are just scratching the surface. There are some great educators out there doing great things for our deserving kids. I encourage those who have a hunch that things are not right in our traditional school system, to experiment and tinker with giving PBL. Whether you call it Passions Projects, Inquiry Time, 20% Time or Genius Hour… have a go. Your students will thank you for it and will surprise you every step of the way. It’s the only way we are ever going to shake things up – demanding different!




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