Providing Shape for Project Based Learning

"In a Project Based classroom, it is the insights and wonders of students that determine what kind of learning takes place. This means each student receives a more personal, authentic educational experience, rather than simply taking the same class as everyone else."

For years now, many top teachers and administrators have seen the potential of Project Based Learning (PBL) to transform education. Project Based Learning trades in the rapid-fire instruction and assessment cycles we associate with school and instead encourages students to think and work for extended periods of time on complex, high-order projects. This is a powerful approach because it harnesses young learners’ natural curiosity and desire to create things, while allowing teachers to shift away from the responsibilities of constant large-group management and toward individualized coaching and support.

Project Based Learning doesn’t just change the pace in the classroom, though; it fundamentally changes the way students approach thinking and learning. In the traditional classroom, adults like teachers and paraprofessionals are made the receptacles of knowledge and facilitators of learning. For students to succeed, they must extract the proper takeaways from those supports and repeat them back. Project Based Learning, on the other hand, focuses primarily on student inquiry and exploration. In a Project Based classroom, it is the insights and wonders of students that determine what kind of learning takes place. This means each student receives a more personal, authentic educational experience, rather than simply taking the same class as everybody else.

Like any new system, though, PBL presents several unique challenges for students and educators. For one, working on complex, long-term projects requires a high level of organization and executive function, which aren’t always strengths for adolescents. In order for PBL to succeed, teachers and administrators must support their students with scaffolding and organizational systems that help them manage their time, resources and learning to ensure a high-quality experience and meaningful education.

One tool that’s a must in this work is a strong Learning Management System (LMS). An LMS is a digital interface that provides students with a bird’s eye view of their educational experience and keeps all documentation of their learning in one place. Through the LMS, students can set long- and short-term goals, get feedback on progress from their teachers, build an archive of valuable resources, and create a dialogue about learning with the other stakeholders in their lives. This is a tremendous resource to students in a Project Based Learning environment, as the digital space of the LMS becomes equal parts library, sounding board, binder, calendar and organizer. By centralizing support, clarifying goals and providing 24/7 availability, a strong LMS allows teachers and students to transform the classroom into a vibrant Project Based workshop where time is used well and high-quality work is completed.

Project Based Learning has truly transformative potential, but its student-centric, open-ended approach must be balanced with organizational supports and scaffolds to ensure rigor and support for all students. Thankfully, educational technology exists to bridge these gaps and transition the redesign of the classroom space and mindset. When districts and schools contract with a Learning Management System that’s specifically designed to support PBL, they set their teachers and students up for incredible, authentic success.