Project-based learning has become a hot topic as educators look for ways to effectively get students solving problems, working collaboratively and producing evidence of their learning. But as educators turn to this long-standing pedagogy for content delivery, it’s easy to forget to build up the learning skills and dispositions that make the approach successful.
“We don’t need more individual ways of teaching that only do one small thing,” said Laura Thomas, director of the Antioch Center for School Renewal. “Good project-based learning pedagogy has all the stuff we are supposed to be doing embedded in it and we just have to be articulate and point to it.”
A COMMUNITY OF LEARNERS
Effective project-based learning is grounded in a strong learning community, one teachers create and must regularly foster. “Project-based learning requires kids to take risks and they aren’t going to take risks if they don’t trust you or each other,” Thomas said. She suggests teachers co-create a social contract with the class at the beginning of the year and make sure it is a living document that can grow and change. Every joke or put-down is a test of the teacher and she should stop everything to revisit the social contract and discuss violations. When kids are resisting a new kind of learning, it's often because they feel unsafe.
“A lot of teachers don’t understand how important it is to build a learning community,” Thomas said. One of the best ways to do this is through meaningful work, but it’s also important at times to take a break from academics and just play together. A short game outside can refocus students and build trust and teamwork at the same time.
Building a community of learners starts by getting to know one another. Talk as a class about who each student is outside of school. It’s not unheard of for kids get to the end of the school year and not even know one another’s names.
It’s equally important to have good communication with and between students. To do that, students have to be involved in creating the definition of what it means to communicate well. “Instead of telling kids what good communication looks like, you have conversations about what it means to be a good community member, a good friend, a good learning partner or even an organized person,” Thomas said. She’s aware that adults often assume students understand the expectations around softer skills like communication and collaboration without spelling it out. “If it doesn’t have concrete, observable language, the teacher can’t really know if the kids are doing it and the kids won’t know what the teacher is looking for,” Thomas said.
COOPERATION vs. COLLABORATION
The next step in building a community of learners is collaboration, but first, students have to cooperate. When students cooperate, they are acting under a tacit agreement not to get in one another’s way. Collaboration, on the other hand, is about getting to the final goal together. It’s the understanding that the individual can’t succeed unless every member in the group succeeds. And every member is invested in the project being worked on together.
Thomas says you get from cooperation to collaboration through meaningful work. And she doesn’t pretend it’s always easy. But she advises teachers to stay in the conflict together with students when they arise. If one student is refusing to engage, sit down with the group and talk out the problem. Maybe that student felt his idea was rejected and is now refusing to participate. Whatever it is, talk it out. “It feels like it’s time consuming, but it doesn’t happen very often,” Thomas said. And, if teachers take the time do this important conflict resolution early and whenever necessary, other students notice and realize they won’t be able to get away with slacking off.
Paying attention to these underlying structures of the classroom will result in big payoffs in the depth and quality of the project-based learning students do, Thomas said. It changes the classroom culture. But, it also must be maintained. Teachers have to keep their eyes open for signs of trouble. One way to do this is to have students write down who they want to work with on the next project. Take notice of who is always chosen and who is never chosen as a partner. That will provide clues to the state of the learning community.
Building a learning community is a fundamental step to creating the kind of classroom culture that supports engaged students exploring a real world problem resulting in a created demonstration of knowledge gained. But it’s also important to recognize where the learners are in their school careers. Middle and high school educators are teaching students who have often been taught for more than six years with a more traditional style. Many don’t know how to do project-based learning, are scared by autonomy in learning and will resist.
“The biggest challenge is figuring out how far and how fast you can implement,” Thomas said, “And recognizing that it still counts if it’s a teeny tiny thing that the kids are doing.”
New teachers sometimes start their careers energized to bring progressive, constructivist, project-based approaches to underserved kids, particularly in disadvantaged communities, only to find kids and parents dislike it. But, Thomas says they often resist because it’s unfamiliar, or they believe wealthier kids are getting something different, or it requires more of them. They aren’t ready to be thrown into the deep end of student-centered learning without a lot of scaffolding to help them see they can do it.
Thomas had an experience similar to this as a new teacher. She taught 11th grade English and didn’t have much success implementing project-based learning. But she didn’t have any of the tools she now has to build a community of learners, to unpack her own biases, to listen to her students’ experiences of institutional racism and educational violence.
“If I had been willing to get to know their contexts; if I had talked less and listened more, then I think I could have been very successful,” Thomas said. Too often, teachers hold constructivist approaches hostage to lower level learning. Students don’t get to do a project until they pass a vocabulary quiz, for example.
“Give kids the benefit of the doubt on that,” Thomas said. Often when teachers give students an interesting challenge, kids will end up discovering much of the content the teacher had set aside time to cover. They help one another and discover they knew more than they realized. It’s easy to assume students aren’t ready to solve a problem because they approach it differently from the teacher. But they may be coming from a different context and often the hoops they’re asked to jump through in a more traditional classroom come off as demoralizing.
“When they refuse to engage in our insulting pedagogy, we assume that they don’t want to learn,” Thomas said. This is where she thinks it’s important that teachers examine their own biases. It's natural to be suspicious of things that are different from ourselves, that instinct evolved to protect us from danger, but humans are capable of activating higher-order thinking to overcome those basic instincts. Over time, educators can develop themselves to be the kind of educators they want to be.
Ultimately, Thomas is convinced project-based learning is how humans are meant to learn. Other methods developed to cram a bunch of information into students’ brains in a short amount of time just don’t work.
Too often, skills are segmented in school, with a separate curricula for each subject, for social and emotional learning, for study skills. Teaching through discovery and requiring students to use skills and dispositions whose definitions have been co-constructed is much more effective. “When we focus on the skills and dispositions at the beginning, the depth of the work is much greater,” Thomas said. “And [students] internalize the skills much more than when it’s a separate unit because it’s contextualized.”
Along the way, students gain the tools to learn how to learn, the most valuable skill of them all.