Project-based learning: The ‘Why’

Dylan McCarthy

Dylan McCarthy is a Primary school teacher in Trafford. Having spent over 10 years in the classroom with children from Reception through to Y6, he is currently on sabbatical working in partnership with schools around the country on innovative ways of delivering the curriculum.
He founded Stepping into Business (SiB), a not-for-profit social enterprise, to deliver enterprise education workshops, games, activities and CPD sessions to teachers in Primary and Secondary schools. Delivered by teaching staff, these courses bring learning to life, developing important life skills and making the curriculum relevant to children from the moment they enter school. SiB have recently been funded by Innovate UK to bring their classroom experiences online, with an exciting game due to launch later this year.

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Originally published on 19th October 2016 Originally published on 19th October 2016

Project-based learning (PBL) is far from a new fad - it has been around much longer than most of us would imagine. In fact, PBL has been around a lot longer than structured learning, as inevitably, PBL puts learners in the situation of needing to solve a problem, challenge or complex question, much as people have been in real-life problematic situations throughout time.

As a huge fan of PBL, I find this thought very comforting and reassuring – PBL is not innovative in itself, but it does encourage learners to be innovative. For many teachers, PBL is a scary and unknown entity, where we take the lead from students rather than the other way around. All the stereotypical paths to learning outcomes are hazy, shimmering roads leading off into the unknown. It is much the same as comparing a journey from Manchester to Birmingham – I could fly, drive down the M6, or use a compass and find my way. Which journey will I remember best? Rather than plan the journey for the students and tell them that the quickest way is in fact to get the train, we pose the task or problem to them, and they solve it. There will be mistakes along the way; missed connections, roadblocks, flat tyres etc, and some learners will take a completely different journey altogether, but still arrive at the same destination as their counterparts. The important thing is they have chosen the"Gone are the days where people get a job for life." mode, method and route for their journey, so they are far more likely to remember it!

So, knowing the outcome we want to achieve, how can we plan for this type of learning? How can we ensure all students engage with the project? And importantly, WHY should we provide for this style of learning in school?

The answer is very simple – it is real life! Gone are the days where people get a job for life. It is not what people generally aspire to any more either. Employees need transferable skills; they need to be adaptable and assume different roles on different days. Over 90% of companies now have 10 employees or fewer – so working in a distinct role in a small company is unlikely. It is more likely that on Monday you will be working in payroll; Tuesday, purchasing and bookkeeping; Wednesday, marketing and social media; Thursday, sales meetings; and Friday is work-from-home and tidying up loose ends. Of course, next week will be totally different again!

This is PBL. It is active learning. Inspiring and engaging learners, PBL encourages ownership of learning. People thrive on responsibility and are far more invested in outcomes if they know they are accountable; even more so if others are relying on them. It shifts the balance of ownership for learning in a classroom from teacher to student – a bonus being that it is much harder for a student to blame their teacher for poor results in a PBL environment!

Naturally, the teacher still needs to motivate and engage the students by choosing relevant and interesting real-world problems to solve. The teacher role shifts from sage on the stage to facilitator and coach. Rather than sitting in class and waiting to be shown new information or be told what to read and what to underline, students are actively seeking answers instead of waiting for them to land on their lap. This is undoubtedly the biggest change I have noticed in students, and it affects those previously less motivated to learn than most. Thankfully, in my experience, this new attitude transfers into other types of learning in school, and life, too.

Through PBL, students are also encouraged to work in pairs or groups. As teachers we should naturally provide opportunities for this in school, however it is often for short tasks rather than extended projects. Many students don’t get this opportunity in school – it is often the same kids that are on the football, netball or hockey teams, or in the school choir or band. Working as part of a team is not a natural skill for some people, they need practice. Some students will leave school with very little experience of this, yet are then expected to go and work in a team environment. PBL addresses this too.

Linked to this is the academic research that shows retention of information discovered through PBL is also remembered for longer periods of time. How many of you remember cramming for an exam trying to store fact after fact, unsure which is relevant or may come up in the exam, only for it to be immediately discarded from your memory as you walk out of the test (hopefully the information was retained that long!)? This behaviour sums up my experience in Secondary school. I wasn’t interested in learning for the joy of learning. It was Victorian-style chalk and talk at its truest. If it was a potential exam nugget of information, I’d digest it, hopefully long enough to pass the test. If there was no chance"Some students will leave school with very little experience of teamwork." of it appearing on a test, my attitude, like many others, was “What’s the point? Next…”

Life is not prescriptive; it is a voyage of discovery, as learning should be. I certainly believe there is a place for didactic teaching, even rote learning, but the proportion of time spent in this mode in school is all wrong in my opinion. PBL should not be a rare luxury; it should be part of everyday school life, as it is in real life. Research also shows that through PBL students learn at a deeper level and feel better prepared for work, where most jobs are not as prescriptive as the learning environment students have just left. Skills needed in the workplace are in short supply according to many employers – not only is the attitude and resourcefulness of school leavers questioned, but other life-skills such manners, resilience, inquisitiveness, proactivity and critical thinking are rarities in school leavers. Again, PBL addresses all these important skills.

Learning by doing – assuming various roles, linking new information to previously acquired knowledge, having the opportunity to share, collaborate and present, and having a clear purpose with real outcomes are all integral elements to successful PBL. Why not try it out and if you like it, invest in it, take ownership of it, take a risk, as you are encouraging the students in your class to do so? And as with everything, there is no harm in hoping for a little bit of good luck along the way!

Do you employ PBL tactics in your school? Share your experiences below!

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