Our Students – and Our Teachers – Need True Project-Based Learning
“I hate science and my mom didn’t pass physics, so I don’t need to either.”
As a teacher, this is a tough thing to hear. It’s even tougher when the student has a point.
I began my career teaching physics to students in an economically-declined part of upstate New York. Some of my students had given up on physics before they even started. And why wouldn’t they? School was just something they had to do, or which was more often done to them.
I figured out quickly that reaching these students was going to require a different way of teaching. I needed to interest them, engage them, and challenge them in a way no lecture was ever going to do. I turned to project-based learning, an approach to teaching that is much more frequently discussed than it is understood—particularly in online education.
At its core, project-based learning begins with the idea that students need to learn through authentic experiences, not memorize content. It’s a move away from the conveyor belt model of education where students are passive receivers of information to one where they are active participants in their own learning.
Research shows that project-based learning helps students become better decision makers and “may be more effective than traditional instruction in social studies, science, mathematics, and literacy.” As the name suggests, it starts with a project. Students, coached by their teacher, identify a problem or question and set out to analyze it and find a solution, which may require them to tackle a variety of subjects. As an example, there might be a part of town with a lot of pedestrian and bike traffic that lacks much separation from automobiles. Students can work in teams to understand and address the physics of safety, the economics of solutions and the politics of change.
When students see the relevance of what they’re doing—when they understand that what they are learning goes well beyond the classroom—they discover a motivation that can exceed even their own interest. “When will I ever use this” and “Will this be on the test?” are questions that go right out the window.
This style of learning also gives students the opportunity to learn how to work the way the “real” world does. Very few jobs involve sitting still for 45 minutes and then taking a written test. In fact, 70 percent of today’s employees around the world work remotely at least once per week. So, the skills that students develop in an online project-based learning environment—technical computer skills, remote collaboration, critical thinking, and public speaking in a digital space—are ones that will allow students to thrive in today’s workforce.
There is plenty of data that shows project-based learning leads to better academic outcomes, too, when it’s executed with fidelity. A recent study comparing two groups of second-grade students in high-poverty, low-performance schools found that those working in the project-based learning model scored higher than the control group in both social studies (63 percent) and informational reading (23 percent).
Students aren’t the only ones that gain, either. This approach also brings benefits to the teacher. For the last seven years, I have worked as an instructional coach helping teachers regain agency and reignite their creativity to support learners. In this role, I have seen so many teachers rediscover the joy of their profession, joy that had been eaten away by years of “test and punish” and negative public discourse. The most consistent feedback I receive is that while this way of teaching is challenging, it’s very powerful.
Helping both teachers and students grow is one of the many reasons I’ve transitioned to building career readiness programs with project-based learning in an online environment. Instead of just bringing project-based learning to a few schools or districts, I’m now introducing it to students across the nation. My goal is to give this opportunity to every child, of every background, in every community.
However, project-based learning’s biggest hurdle is that not enough students have access to it. For every classroom that works in this way, there are 99 others that still resemble what public education looked like in the 1950s. It is something close to a moral imperative that our schools embrace new ways of educating students so that they all get the opportunity to learn and be inspired.