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Implementing Project-Based Learning in the 21st Century

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This post is by Jeff Robin, founding staff member and art teacher at High Tech High.


People learn using three domains: Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor, or Head, Heart, and Hand. Everyone needs to think, feel/connect, and do to truly learn.

This knowledge about how people learn is the foundation of Project Based Learning (PBL).

If you Google PBL, the first 40 or so articles, opinions, and ideas are absolutely correct. The teacher creates experiences in, and hopefully out of, the classroom. The students act as co-designers who learn by doing, changing, and making.  

One might say, "There. We are done. Problem solved!"

Not so fast. The real problem often becomes apparent when the teacher implements the project. Some teachers fall back on outdated beliefs, which may include the idea that they have to tell their students everything they need to know before students work on the project. This is often followed by an impulse to quiz or test students on what the teacher said, rather than assessing what the students have learned and demonstrated through the project itself.

Teachers aren't the only ones with problematic assumptions. School principals may become anxious when they see a classroom where students are out of their seats doing, instead of sitting quietly in rows. This anxiety comes from the misguided belief that quiet and compliant individual work is synonymous with rigor. Parents, driven by a similar misunderstanding of the nature of rigor, might ask their students, "Where is your homework? Without homework you will not be ready for college." Even some students think, "I would rather just be told what I need to know and then take a test so I can forget everything." Regurgitation and recitation are great fun at parties. Some of the greatest scoundrels in history had one or two poems memorized and ready to go when enchanting party guests.

However, that is not really learning. 

When a student chooses a topic and then researches and experiments with ideas because they are interested, and then transforms their knowledge into a project, that shows what they have learned to the community. That is rigor. If the students can teach themselves, peers, parents, community members, and their teacher about what they are interested in, that is one rigorous project.

These are reasons that we need to think about Head, Heart, and Hand when planning and doing PBL in the classroom. In great PBL, all students are able to find their own hook or path into a project.  

These two animations offer guidance from two different perspectives on PBL.

Text Book Me Not is the cognitive path. The animation outlines 19 concepts that we need to think about while planning, managing, and exhibiting a project to ensure that all students are engaged in meaningful, integrated work and that the learning experiences are worthwhile. These concepts are vital, particularly if we are committed to scaffolding projects for heterogeneous groupings of students with different backgrounds, abilities, and personal lives. The list is daunting; however, it is doable.

Do Something is the psychomotor path. This animation encourages all of us to "Do Something" and then have the students "Do Something," which they then exhibit for a public audience. It sounds simple, and it is. When we simply create situations in which student activity integrates the hands with the head and heart, the outcomes for student learning become amazingly complex in ways that are beyond what a teacher could possibly plan for.

Andrew Gloag and I realized this simple path of "Do Something" when we started to prepare for the Get Bent project. We wanted the students to make a bentwood chair. We watched people online steaming and bending wood and tried it ourselves. After spending two weekends and $1,000, we realized that steaming was not the way. We moved to laminating thin sheets of plywood. We made a proof model, promotional poster, physics concept diagram, the chair, a lamp to go with the chair, and a book about the process. Then the students made these same deliverables with their own designs. Some made chairs out of bent wood. Others used bent metal. That was OK. Everyone made something and showed their work proudly to the community on exhibition night. If we did not try it ourselves we would not have had the time for the project and exhibition. We did something, learned from that experience, and had the students do something too.

The affective component, the heart part, was believing that it was OK for every student to design, create, revise, and control their own project. In our hearts we believed that they would and could learn everything they needed by completing this project.

So, pick a path and try it. Plan for the cognitive path, or the psychomotor path. Then try using the other path to support your classroom. There are no silver bullets in education. The work we do in planning must reflect the kinds of work we want our students to engage in. Do you want them to passively listen and regurgitate what you say? Then plan a lecture. If you want them to bring their head, heart, and hands to their learning, then you have to too. 

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