What do worms, architecture, and butterflies have in common?

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last blog, but it’s time to sit down and write down some thoughts. I watched three videos this week on Edutopia.com that featured the use of Project Based Learning (PBL). More than a Barrel of…Worms was the first video.







The second video was Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning.







The third video was March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration.











I found myself watching these teachers and marvelling at their ability to achieve amazing results from implementing Project Based Learning (PBL). What is PBL? How does it work? According to Edutopia.org, there are six steps to successfully implementing PBL into the classroom. They are:

  • Start with a central question that may be answered in a variety of ways,
  • Design a plan for the project that includes the students in providing direction and decision-making,
  • Create a schedule that outlines timelines that are flexible,
  • Facilitate and guide the process with the students and monitor the progress of the project
  • Assess the outcome with feedback, or formal rubrics, and self-assessment
  • Evaluate the experience through discussions, reflection, and sharing of ideas and feelings.



Let me illustrate by referencing the videos you just watched for these elements being used by the teachers featured. There are common design principles shared by all three teachers that follow the six steps. First, the teachers set out real life questions for the students to answer knowing they might derive different conclusions. For example, I love the class where a few students decide to do a project on a fellow classmate who has Cystic Fibrosis. This was a real life situation for these children, and they wanted to understand what their classmate was experiencing. The project involved science, social studies, language arts, and health in one theme. The geometry class looked at geometric principles from a real life perspective of what schools might look like 50 years down the road. They all came to different conclusions and answers, but their learning involved high levels of engagement.

The second step was illustrated when the teachers design a project that was somewhat open-ended and allowed for students to provide input about the various design elements, but still complying to the overall educational outcomes that the teachers hoped the students would achieve. As you listen to the students talk about their projects they clearly feel a sense of ownership for their learning. What a marvel it must have been for students to experience a butterfly emerging from its cocoon right before their eyes! And for these students to be entirely in control of the project design was very important.

Each teacher stressed the importance of setting timelines for the students to complete their projects. This is realistic for students to understand that projects need to be completely within a set period of time. The geometry teacher made it clear that the project was scheduled for the last six weeks of the term, but what was significant was that the students were having the opportunity to apply their knowledge from a theory perspective to a practical context.

In each of the videos the teachers provide an important role of coaching and guiding the students through the process. In each case the teachers use a tremendous amount of technology with their students. Further to this, these teachers do not simply layer technology with traditional teaching strategies. They embrace the technology in a way that enables the students to take full advantage of it as a learning tool. The students are guided and provided direction, but not so much that they take over the project.

In the end, the students are assessed for the answers they reached in their projects. But, one thing that stands out and that doesn’t get assessed is the learning that takes place among the peers in the class. In each video there is the level of sharing among each group with the other classmates about what they have learned completing their projects. Not only did each student learn from their own project, they learned from listening to their classmates share their learnings. Very cool!

There is little doubt about why these students are successful. They are engaged in the learning process from the beginning of the project. Both the students and teacher are active participants in the learning. The students are not the only learners involved. The teachers are lifelong learners as well, and they communicate their enthusiasm and excitement for learning with their students as they share the results of their projects. This increases the level of engagement for learning immeasurably. But further to this, the students are able to establish meaning of their learnings and transfer this knowledge into practical situations that they may face in life after school. This is such a key element of the learning for students to make a connection with what they are learning in school and see how it fits into real life. Often, we as teachers do a poor job of this, and we need to be more diligent in making this happen.

In contrast to these teachers use of PBL, most of us have done group work activities and usually were pulling out our hair by the end of it, because it seemed like a lot of work with minimal results. I think back now, and there were a few reasons I was unsuccessful with group work. First, I didn’t have the first clue where to start with projects when I started teaching. I was taught at university how to teach students with traditional methods that were more teacher-centred, and besides “having students sit in rows doing busy work minimizes discipline issues.” As a result, I tried to force students to conform to what the textbook prescribed.

As I reflected on these videos and the use of PBL, I was challenged to think about how many times I didn’t step outside the traditional teaching style, and as a result my students missed out on an opportunity to have a learning experience that was meaningful and transferable, because I was so concerned about covering the curriculum outcomes. I guess I have a lot to learn still, especially since I am a lifelong learner as well as the students.

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