Like most teachers, I have asked students to work on projects in my classes. The idea of having students make and create projects is not new. Project-based learning (PBL), however, shifts student learning to be through the project rather than using the project as a reflection of learning at the end of a unit or course. In several of my past computer science courses, students have created some well-thought-out projects. One criterion I required was for them to include a new computer programming concept that they researched with in-depth inquiry, and that they then implemented in their work. Aside from this component, the project was primarily an activity that occurred at the end of the course and simply had students building on their previous knowledge. This way of learning, while at times effective, did not seem true to what students might face in a real-world context where they would need to problem-solve, collaborate, and plan out creative solutions. (All bold items in this article refer to the eight essentials of project-based learning from The Buck Institute for Education and are more fully explained here.)
At our school we have been actively moving towards the inclusion of The Buck Institute for Education’s (BIE) model of project-based learning in all classes. As a result, in June 2012, several colleagues and I attended PBL World, a project-based learning conference with educators primarily from the U.S. and Canada. This conference added to my initial foundation of PBL and provided yet another nudge for me to be more intentional about using PBL as method of instruction rather than simply having students do projects as an assessment.
Currently, I am teaching a combined grade 9 applied mathematics and open-level computer applications course. This year-long course is the first time that we have intentionally combined mathematics and computers. We hoped to integrate technology in mathematics learning and also to provide a block of time in which a project could be planned, implemented, and executed on a larger scale. I have used small- and medium-sized projects that have lasted from several days to several weeks in the past, but here was a chance to have a project as the focal point for an entire course.
In preparation for this combined course, a project theme was needed. In August 2012, the local newspaper ran several articles on community vegetable gardens throughout the city of Hamilton. The articles raised the awareness of both poverty and hunger in our own city. After discussing this with colleagues, reexamining course expectations (the significant content), and doing some preliminary planning, I decided that the mathematics and computer course could perhaps have a community garden as its project.
To successfully launch a project of this size, it was important to have a plan charted out. The project overview template from the BIE was adapted for use in our school. For the plan to work, the project idea needed to be owned by the students. Voice and choice provides students an “opportunity to make choices, and to express their learning in their own voice, [and] also to increase students’ educational engagement.” (See “What is PBL?”) The project was introduced to the class just after Thanksgiving. The entry event had the class tour the school campus, share food together, celebrate a successful school fundraising event for a local food bank, discuss the need for food, read from scripture about our call to help feed the hungry, and listen to folk singer Harry Chapin’s challenge to feed people tomorrow. (You can see the video on YouTube here.)
The day after this entry event, the driving question for the project was shared. A driving question needs to capture “the heart of the project in clear, compelling language” (Larmer and Mergdendoller). When presented with our question—“How can we use the Hamilton District Christian High property to help the Neighbour2Neighbour Centre feed people in Hamilton?”—the students responded, “We should make a garden!” This successful entry event caused student buy-in and ownership as the class discussed their various gardening experiences, their plans and ideas to make this garden a success. The next few days brought skepticism, as some students asked questions such as, “Are we really going to make the garden or is it just a way to trick us to learn mathematics?”, “How can we learn mathematics by planting a garden?”, and “We’re really doing this?” Once the students realized that many of the mathematics questions and examples used in class referred to the garden, they gradually began to believe in the project and became fully committed to it.
The timeline of this course benefits a project of this scope and allows for a reordering of mathematics units to coincide with project requirements, such as: linear relationships to calculate the cost of supplies based on the size of the garden; a mini-lesson on perimeter, area, and volume to assist in preparing a budget using a spreadsheet; and a discussion about bias to help comprehend statistics and information. The computer applications’ curricular expectations are woven throughout the course as they neatly complement the project and assist with twenty-first-century learning skills.
Project-based learning has not drastically changed the style of lessons. However, it has provided a focus for the lessons, thereby, increasing student engagement. Without the authentic task of the garden, students might be at a loss to understand the purpose of the work or how to proceed through its activities (referred to as “technology supports for project-based learning”). For example, the students decided upon the campus location for the garden and were asked to individually create an electronic presentation detailing their rationale for their chosen location and possible concerns that they might have about their choice. The students then collaborated in small groups to reflect and revise their work. Together, they then incorporated aspects of each other’s work into a shared presentation. The location proposals were then presented to a public audience (our principal and head custodian) to gather support and momentum. Another authentic task is financing the garden, which continued to be a worry for the class. Several fundraising initiatives were discussed and considered, and we decided to do an investigation into grant possibilities for community gardens. At the moment, the students are in the final stages of completing a grant application that asks them to prepare a project budget, state the purpose of the project, articulate how funds will be used, and how, upon approval, the grant foundation will be recognized. Throughout all of this, the students continue to be committed to their project.
In previous projects, students’ engagement levels have varied from excitement, to compliance, and, unfortunately, to apathy. Yet, this time it seems different as student ownership raises concerns beyond the immediate needs. These concerns are regarding continued care and the garden’s well-being. Summertime care will need to be addressed by the class. However, the shared vision that they have for their project means that they will likely develop some creative ideas and unique solutions. Through project ownership, there is a continued recognition of classmates’ skills and abilities that include problem-solving, designing, public speaking, doing, thinking, building, working, and planning. These gifts and skills are vital for the overall success of the project, and are welcomed and celebrated by the group. Students still struggle with some curricular concepts, with identifying what they need to know, and at times they may be reluctant to do the work. However, they see value and recognize a connection between the curriculum and the project. They no longer ask the question, “When am I ever going to use this?” because they are using what they are learning in the process of learning itself.
Project-based Learning is an instructional method that allows students to be more involved and engaged as it provides a tangible reason for their learning. During this transition into PBL, there have also been some changes to my role as the classroom teacher. While some days include rote instruction, quizzes, and assignments, most often, I am teaching with my students more than to my students. More time is spent listening and dialoguing with the students as they present their ideas, plans, and learning for the garden. As the project progresses, I am concerned with fair and individual assessment, maintaining student enthusiasm, balancing the time needed for building, digging, and planting with the time required to honor the curriculum, wondering whether the project will be a success, and, more importantly, how can we even begin to define and measure success.
As our class travels down the PBL road together, it continues to be an exciting journey coupled with valid concerns that may not be fully understood until there is time for reflection and revision. In the midst of switching to a PBL pedagogy, there likely will be elements of unpreparedness, needed growth, and even failure, but through these elements, a truly authentic learning experience can be achieved by all learners.
For more information, tools, examples and resources about Project Based Learning please visit The Buck Institute for Education.
- Larmer, John, and John R. Mergendoller. “8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning.” Buck Institute for Education, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2012 <http://www.bie.org/tools/freebies/8_essentials_for_project-based_learning>.
- “Technology Supports for Project-Based Learning.” Technology and Education Reform. U.S. Department of Education, 1995. Web. 15 Oct. 2012 <http://www2.ed.gov/PDFDocs/techrole.pdf>.
- “What Is PBL?” Buck Institute for Education. Web. 04 Dec. 2012 <http://www.bie.org/about/what_is_pbl/>.