Project-Based Learning: The Benefits and Challenges of PBL in the Classroom.
This blog will define Project-Based Learning (PBL) and explore why and how PBL can inspire students to become lifelong learners with the skills and abilities needed for future success.
As we explore the foundations of project-based learning, we’ll also highlight the unique benefits PBL offers, and describe some of the challenges teachers may encounter when implementing PBL in the classroom. Let’s get started.
What is Project-Based Learning?
Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a framework of learning where students collaboratively research and develop authentic solutions to real-world problems that have personal relevance. Learners examine issues they are passionate about within their own communities or beyond, and see how they can make a real difference. Because of the personal relevance of the project, learners find the intrinsic motivation to build many new skills and persist through increasing levels of inquiry, investigation, and rigor.
PBL provides a safe and supportive space for learners to encounter the messy process of real-world problem solving. In pursuit of real world solutions, students practice skills that will serve them well far into the future, such as ideation, design thinking, and prototyping. They must also learn to listen to feedback, accept setbacks, collaborate with peers, and take appropriate risks. Thus, by design, PBL helps students develop many 21st century skill, social skills, and emotional regulation skills right alongside the academic and technical skills required for the project. This simultaneous integration of many types of skills is a key benefit of PBL for schools and districts seeking to support whole-person learning.
Through PBL, students must come together to discuss and share ideas as they collectively work towards a viable solution. They inevitably develop the essential interpersonal skills that are in high demand in the workplace such as empathy, active listening, perspective taking, compromise, and consensus building.
So we see that PBL allows youth to engage their world in profound ways. Importantly, PBL can have a powerful, long term effect on students’ identity, attitudes and world views. It helps them shift from being a passive end-user to being an empowered agent of change in their community. Making a real impact and seeing their efforts tangibly manifest in the world is especially important for adolescents confronting existential questions about purpose, personal value, and the meaning of life. As they come to see themselves as valued community members, young people steeped in PBL naturally become more curious about the world and their place in it. They take more and more responsibility for their actions, their learning, and their lives. They’ve ‘learned how to learn’ and are ready to apply themselves to the next interesting challenge.
Benefits of Introducing PBL in the Classroom
Teachers who embrace PBL allow students to immerse themselves in rewarding projects they find personally motivating and thought-provoking. Higher engagement means higher productivity and improved classroom climate.
PBL gives learners a structured and safe place to take more responsibility. They can test out new ideas, build strategic plans, make decisions, and collaborate with peers. These experiences can then be applied to all sorts of challenges and opportunities in the future.
Broad Perspectives Beyond School Walls
Project-Based Learning takes education outside of the classroom walls. It allows students to connect with people, communities, and organizations directly. With this comes the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, broader perspective, and social capital .
Self-direction and Self-efficacy
As learners make meaningful contributions to their communities, they strengthen their sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. They become creators and makers, rather than just partakers.
Integrated Skills for Deeper Learning
Teachers facilitate the integration of essential skills and abilities right alongside academic content. This is precisely what employers and higher education admissions officers want to see in applicants. In this way, PBL gives young learners distinct advantages now and far into the future.
Challenges of Project-Based Learning
Implementing PBL in the classroom has many benefits. Any new approach comes with a unique set of challenges. Anyone considering a project-based learning framework should familiarize themselves with these common challenges.
Real-world problems are complex, and a project may not end as initially envisioned. Teachers must be upfront about what success looks like, and help students see “failure” as a stepping stone to deeper learning. In PBL, there is no failure, only further inquiry and appreciation of the energy and work it takes to ‘make a difference’. Teachers must be prepared to celebrate the small, intangible accomplishments to ensure frustration and ambiguity does not undermine motivation.
Identifying Meaningful Projects
Time constraints can lead to a project feeling trite and contrived. Moving past the brainstorming stage too quickly in order to ‘deliver the content’ may reduce the motivational impact of PBL. Indifference to a project removes the sense of ownership from students and will slow both productivity and creativity. To resolve this, teachers must take extra care to build in authentic opportunities for student voice and choice.
Engaging Students as Active Learners
Students may face a challenge transitioning from passive to active learning. It is not uncommon for a student to feel helpless or confused during their first experience with PBL. Sometimes, this discomfort and new found freedom can even lead to disruptive behaviors. Teachers must actively find the balance between guiding students and leaving them the space to find their own answers. Empowering students to be active learners requires teachers to sometimes not have all the answers.
Being Prepared is not Always Possible
Real-world, meaningful problems are most likely complex problems. Not just for the students, but the teacher as well. When PBL projects are selected, the teacher often looks at the problem with the same curiosity as the students. This is a wonderful place to be, but also can lead to feeling a loss of control. Teachers may not yet know about the subject, and may feel like they are “flying by the seat of their pants”. Rather than being the expert, embrace the unknown and model curiosity and discovery for your learners. You’re in it together, and these projects may awaken new directions for you, as well.
Measuring Growth and Trusting the Process
Project-Based Learning has many moving parts. How to monitor progress and validate growth along the way, without dampening the ‘flow’ takes careful planning. It is important to remember that “soft skills” are just as important as the content, and that the relevance of the subject is ultimately what will lead to mastery of the content. Consider creating a cycle of brief conferences to check-in about the overall experience, discuss progress, reflect, and refocus. You’ll get incredible insight into their experience, and you’ll be able to refine your PBL process to be even more effective!