Over the last couple days at High Tech High, I’ve honed my own internal description of what project-based learning really is. I’ve realized that “projects” we do are sometimes more appropriately classified as activities. As we hold up PBL as a tenet of Innovation Lab, what is it?
It might be easier to talk about activities that we often think are projects. A couple examples that stuck with me this week:
- a Chemistry activity on fermentation where students are given supplies to make yogurt, follow the steps to make it, and answer questions
- a middle school Social Studies activity on globalization where students put together a travel brochure for a particular country
- an Algebra II activity on quadratics where students write equations based on business models and answer application-based questions
In all of the above activities, students complete a task by taking information from one place and putting it somewhere else. While the activities mentioned are often touted as “real-world applications,” they’re missing some key points (some of which are explicitly mentioned by Rob Riordan in a presentation and some of which I’ve summarized from the conference and prior discussions):
- PBL provides access and challenge to all learners
- PBL includes student voice and choice in the process
- PBL is strongest with authentic communication to an adult/expert/mentor in the community
- PBL allows students to create something novel that did not exist before
- PBL is an environment where teachers are exploring problems with students that nobody knows the answer to
Upgrading the examples above to projects, including an extra (three of which have been done at HTH):
- a Chemistry project on fermentation where different student groups investigate fermenting recipes, create a fermenter’s guide recipe book, document and create a video about the process, plan for exhibition, acquire microscopic images of the fermentation, and examine the history and health effects of fermentation (most groups involve contacting experts in the community)
- a middle school Social Studies project on globalization where students plan a unique trip to a country of their choice, highlighting major sights to visit, foods to eat, and customs to be aware of and why based on their history and importance
- an Algebra II project on quadratics where students create a business model, collect consumer data to create pricepoints, use linear and quadratic regressions to maximize profit so that proceeds can go to a charity, and create a presentation to real business owners in the community
- an English/Art combo project: “Produce an artsy, low-fi, junk puppet theatre video from a dystopian/utopian short story you’ve written inspired by Orwell’s 1984. Use narration of the screenplay to guide a video based on an preliminary, research paper, that addresses a current issue. The objective is to imagine how that topic shapes our future world in the year 2084.” Examples of student videos here!
Still confused? An excellent video on project-based learning versus project-oriented learning (by Jeff Robin, a HTH teacher).