Students are Bored. Teachers are Burned Out. Better Ways of Learning are the Answer.
One school year ends, and after a few short months, another will begin again.
For educators with more than a few years of experience under their belts, the summer can be a relief. It’s a time to reflect, recover and prepare for the year to come. The only thing that puts a damper on this time is the nagging sense that next year might look a little too much like the previous five. Over time, content and instruction can start to feel like the same-old, same-old routine you could practically recite in your sleep.
Throughout my teaching career, I found the daily challenge of reaching my kids to be hugely complex and stimulating. However, when it came to my traditional approach to instruction, it didn’t take long until no one was more bored by my lectures and tired of my jokes than me.
I know there are a lot of other educators out there experiencing the same predicament. The traditional classroom can be stultifying. We do what we do because we love kids and want to give them the tools they need to succeed. The problem is, traditional teaching methods are: (1) not engaging many students; (2) not enjoyable for students (or the educator); and (3) not arming students with the soft skills and technical skills they need to succeed in today’s workforce.
Fortunately, there’s a solution that addresses all three of these issues. It’s called project-based learning (PBL), and a growing number of teachers and schools are using it to transform their classrooms.
Project-based learning isn't anything new. But it empowers students to have more ownership over and input into what they are learning. Educators have historically acted as the gatekeepers of knowledge—handing over the reins even a little can be incredibly scary—but in a PBL environment, their role is still to provide oversight and guidance, while giving kids the tools and space needed to define their own learning.
Teachers in this role help students discover their interests, identify a relevant opportunity for them to act on those interests, and deploy the skills they need to learn in pursuing it. Certain projects might make students use a combination of science, English andmath skills, a phenomenon that better reflects what happens in “the real world.”
For example, students might redesign a section of a local park to make it more inviting and accessible. To succeed in this project, students would have to use math to calculate costs, science to ensure that their suggested improvement wouldn’t negatively impact the environment, and English to communicate with local officials.
Where my physics class was concerned, PBL gave me the tools to engage many more students. We learned circuits by designing tiny doll houses with working lights, used the physics of waves and sound to create musical instruments, and explored light and color theories by making art that changed when viewed under different light sources. Each of these examples showcased the overlap of physics with students’ other pursuits such as art, music, and design.
There is room for students to use PBL outside one subject—not to mention outside brick-and-mortar schools and in an online classroom—as well.
There are still many students for whom school does not work. However, my hope is that PBL will cast a wider net, reducing the number of reluctant learners and engaging previously uninterested students who failed to see how the lessons learned in school were relevant to them and their futures.
The takeaways are what matter most. With PBL, students still learn the grade-specific lessons educators are expected to teach them, sometimes better than their peers in traditional classrooms. But more importantly, students form lasting memories tied to those lessons. Learning through projects brings joy back into the classroom for both the students and the educators.
When classrooms are centered on students’ interests and designed to give students some say in what and how they learn, every day holds a little more learning, surprise and excitement for all of us.